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The Virtual Statehouse
In a blink of an eye, everything changed.
With the Vermont State House closed for the week, and likely for months longer, Vermonters began to adapt, as they have for centuries in the face of previous disasters.
Numerous Senate committees, a joint leadership committee and the entire House held daily conference calls, all open for the public to listen. They were filled with the usual hiccups, annoyances and amusements that accompany conference calls – background noise, “can you hear me now?” and snide comments not intended to be heard. But mostly they were focused and serious efforts to address the state’s – and nation’s – worst health and economic crisis in generations.
It was all things COVID-19 in every call. Hospitals statewide are bracing for a tsunami of patients with a shortage of beds, emergency equipment and staff. In northern Vermont, a small hospital is already losing one million dollars a week due to the cancellation of elective surgeries. In southern Vermont, two EMS volunteers are self-isolating due to possible exposure but cannot return to their homes.
Vermont’s court system is under enormous stress, and there is a call from the ACLU to release prisoners to prevent cruise-ship conditions in corrections facilities when the wave hits.
Vermonters are being laid off in historic numbers. The Department of Labor usually processes 400 unemployment claims each week; there were 4000 processed through the departments new online form on Wednesday alone. Fully one-half of the state’s 21,000 food service employees will soon lose their jobs.
The state’s general fund is facing a $200 million loss in the next three months – a big number for a very small state.
With all schools and child care centers closed, the state is in the midst of a child care crisis. Who takes care of the children of essential workers? And which workers are essential? And of course, what about the children of parents who have to work away from home?
And there was this, only somewhat more pedestrian problem: grocery stores may be out of toilet paper until June due to hoarding.
Lawmakers struggled with these and many other issues this week. We have included summaries in this Legislative Update of the major issues discussed.
Discussing issues is one thing; voting is entirely another, and that is the next puzzle lawmakers will have to solve.
The Senate returns on Tuesday consider a House-passed emergency unemployment compensation bill, H.681. The Senate Rules Committee held a call today to help senators figure out how to reconcile voting and social distancing when they return.
According to Secretary of the Senate John Bloomer, social distancing guidelines could be met by allowing senators to spread out to various offices and hallways with speakers, with a prolonged roll call that allows them to enter the chamber sequentially. That will probably work for the 30-member Senate, but how do the 150 members of the House gather to vote? That remains to be answered.
Legislative committees apparently have greater constitutional latitude to vote remotely. Committees may be allowed to cast votes by telephone, with roll calls required when votes are not unanimous.
Five House committees will begin meeting next week, perhaps through videoconferencing.
These committees will first focus solely on COVID-19 response legislation, but before long they are likely to return to the panoply of other bills that were pending when they left Montpelier. That will create significant challenges for anyone on the outside who has an interest in what passes.
So far, legislators have responded impressively in providing public access to their discussions. But as the issues become more complex and lawmakers begin to vote, the temptation will grow to deliberate outside the public’s view. One Senate committee has already discussed suspending the state’s Open Meeting Laws during the emergency period.
DRM will be following the virtual deliberations closely and providing regular updates. Please contact anyone on the DRM team with any suggestions as to how we can improve our services in this new environment.
State facing major revenue losses, but has reserves in place
The Senate Committee on Finance heard testimony on major potential fiscal implications to the state, and property tax concerns for municipalities, due to the COVID-19 virus.
Open Meetings Law amendments would allow for meetings in the virtual world
The Senate Committee on Government Operations deliberated this week on temporary amendments to Vermont’s Open Meeting Laws to allow for deliberations that are consistent with health and safety protocols required by COVID-19. The amendments would expire once the crisis subsides.
Unemployment insurance filing is trending
The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee began considering changes to a House-passed emergency unemployment compensation law, H.681, which expands benefits for employees affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Families First Act signed by President
In response to COVID-19, H.R. 6201 quickly moved through Congress and was signed by President Trump this week. This legislation guarantees free COVID-19 testing, establishes paid leave, enhances unemployment insurance, expands food security initiatives and increases federal Medicaid funding.
Lawmakers respond to school and childcare facility closings
Gov. Phil Scott ordered dismissal of preK thru 12 schools starting Wednesday. The order specified that during the initial two-week period of school closure, the districts would focus on developing new systems of food pickup and delivery, create continuity of education plans, and provide continuity for students who struggle and special education.
Senate Health reviews COVID-19 response proposal
The Senate House and Welfare Committee met remotely this week to review H.742, a bill passed by the House late last week, and consider what needs to be added to support the health care system in responding to COVID-19.
Green Mountain Care Board eases regulations to regulated entities
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Green Mountain Care Board took action on Wednesday that gives hospitals flexibility from regulatory requirements to focus on operations and crisis response.
Governor allows take-out beer and wine
On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott loosened Vermont’s restrictive, Prohibition-era alcohol laws by issuing a Gubernatorial Directive permitting “to-go” sales and delivery of beverage alcohol with the purchase of a meal, as well as the delivery of alcohol products by licensed retail stores.
Full House and five House Committees to meet next week, others to follow
The Vermont House will meet next week as a whole and in various committees, beginning with a remote “Caucus of the Whole” at 1:00 p.m. on Monday. Members.