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Legislature Ready to Move On, But What’s Next?
Legislators run for office, by and large, to solve problems. Now, faced with a massive health and financial crisis unlike anything the state has experienced in a century, and having been evicted from the Statehouse, lawmakers are struggling to define their role.
The initial response was swift, as the legislature quickly passed several emergency bills that have been signed into law, with a few others soon to follow. But if this week is any indication, as lawmakers move beyond the initial emergency bills, the next phase is going to present some major challenges.
First, there is the logistical problem of moving the entire bill-making process online. In normal times, any given bill has thousands of touch-points as it moves through the legislative process. Lawmakers have hundreds of interactions in rapid-fire sequence on dozens of issues during the course of each day.
Most of those interactions are gone now, replaced by digital communications that are, ironically, vastly less efficient. It’s like running a fire hose through a straw – it takes a lot longer, and in the end not much makes it through.
Then there is the plodding, yet disjointed structure of committee meetings conducted over Zoom and YouTube. Clogged Internet bandwidth and forgotten mute buttons grind down the pace of discussions. This week, one committee was victimized by the newfound outlet for sociopathy that isZoom bombingwhen pornography suddenly appeared onscreen during a discussion about agriculture.
And there is the fundamental question of what is the legislature’s role in responding to a pandemic. Most committee hearings this week were spent hearing reports from the administration on what they are doing to respond. The governor and his staff have received widespread praise for their response as the virus disrupts nearly every aspect of life in Vermont. But as they were called away from the front lines of disaster response to provide reports to committees, some staff members gently pushed back.
Lawmakers were also brushed back by administration staff as they took on the role of constituent service. Many businesses have looked to their legislators for help as they sought exemptions to continue operating under Gov. Phil Scott’s sweepingStay Home/Stay Safe Order. With legislators advocating for a loosening of the rules for some businesses, Agency of Commerce and Community Development staff – who have been pulled from their traditional duty to advocate for business development – gently chastised lawmakers and asked for help in keeping Vermonters safe.
Finally, there is the question of remote voting. Vermont’s tradition-bound Senate has not even allowed electronic devices to be present in the Senate chamber, so it has, unsurprisingly, moved cautiously to allow voting to occur outside the Statehouse. Both bodies are expected to approve some version of remote voting next week.
The legislature, like everyone else, is making up new rules as they go.
Don’t bank on it; federal grant funds may run dry
Chris D’Elia, President of Vermont Bankers’ Association, told the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs on Friday that the new federalPayroll Protection Programmay reach its capacity next week, less than a week after opening the application process.
Legislature continues to grapple with unemployment insurance inequities
Unemployment benefits for Vermonters, recently expanded underH.742in response to COVID-19, are now significantly higher with a supplemental federal benefit of $600 per week for each claimant.