Kiah Morris - 5/11/21

Kiah Morris speaks to reporters during a remote press conference on Tuesday.

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MONTPELIER — The House of Representatives gave final passage Wednesday to a resolution declaring racism a public health emergency, but not without some fireworks.

The resolution, JRH 6, passed 135-8 on a roll call vote, following impassioned statements in favor of passage.

JRH 6, sponsored by Rep. Brian Cina, P-Chittenden 6-4, cites racial discrepancies in health outcomes among BIPOC Vermonters including a much higher rate of COVID-19 cases, higher rates of mental health issues, lower incomes and higher poverty rates, as reasons the Legislature should treat racism as a health emergency.

It declares “that racism constitutes a public health emergency in Vermont” and commits the Legislature to “the sustained and deep work of eradicating systemic racism throughout the State, actively fighting racist practices, and participating in the creation of more just and equitable systems.”

During debate on the resolution Tuesday, Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland-4, said “All lives matter, especially the unborn.” He repeated that statement Wednesday.

The use of “all lives matter” in response to “Black lives matter” is seen by many as a denial of systemic racism, and of the difficulties Black Americans have endured throughout U.S. history due to slavery and racism.

Wednesday, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, spoke up in reaction to Terenzini’s statement, and cited the racism experienced by her friend, former state Rep. Kiah Morris, as an example of why the resolution ought to be supported. She did not cite Terenzini by name on the floor, but said later his comments prompted her response.

“Yesterday we heard the words of privilege and white supremacy spoken during debate on this resolution. And so today I rise not only as a sponsor and supporter of this resolution, but to challenge those words,” Sibilia said.

Sibilia cited a statement made by Morris on the House floor in 2016, when the body was debating a resolution supporting Black Lives Matter.

“Our state is changing, in my community, interracial families are growing exponentially. This reflection of diversity is Vermont at its best. The willingness of people from all racial backgrounds to stand in solidarity with this movement across Vermont is such a powerful gift,” Sibilia quoted Morris as saying.

Morris was Sibilia’s seatmate in the House until she stepped down during her second term, citing the racist harassment she endured at the hands of some Bennington-area residents.

“And then, similar words to those we heard yesterday were spoken in the chamber — followed by a brutal discussion of the reproductive health of black women in America, oblivious to our nation’s history,” Sibilia continued.

“Racism is still a public health crisis,” she said. “For those who still can not see it, please keep trying.”

Reps Hal Colston and Kevin “Coach” Christie, both of whom are Black, spoke in favor of the resolution. Colston, D-Chittenden 6-7, said racism is “a state of fight or flight for black and brown people” that causes stress every day, leading to chronic illness and premature death. “We die before our time because of the role of racism,” he said.

Christie, D-Windsor-4-2, asked his colleagues to approach their vote with an open heart. He said even as a longtime Vermont resident, he does not know what to expect will happen to him when he leaves his house.

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“I do know that depending on how I dress ... even that will impact the way I’m treated in any number of venues,” he said. “ I have spent the last 48 years in the state that I call home and I have worked hard to help my colleagues, friends and allies and fellow vermonters to understand that we do need to open our hearts and our minds to difference.”

Also speaking in support was Rep. Anne B. Donahue, R-Washington 1.

The resolution “doesn’t require taking on personal blame but it does require taking on responsibility for the ongoing work to change the future,” Donahue said.

“I am a part of that history. I have benefited from the best of our history, and I must also own the worst of our history — the racism of the past and the present,” she said. “I fly an American flag from my porch, and I have a Black Lives Matter sign on my lawn.”

Terenizi was joined in voting no by Reps. Sally Achey, R-Rutland-Bennington; Mark Higley, R-Orleans-Lamoille; Robert LaClair, R-Washington 2; Joseph Parsons, R-Orange-Caledonia; Arthur Peterson, R-Rutland 2; Carl Rosenquist, R-Franklin 1; and Brian Smith, R-Orleans 1.

Achey and Rosenquist both said that they could not support the resolution because it did not account for a wider range of circumstances leading to negative health outcomes.

“If we are to address the topic of health care disparity we must also consider cultural, economic and geographic disparities ... and consider all of those biases as public health concerns,” Achey said.

Among the Bennington and Windham delegations, Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2, was absent from the vote.

In other business, the House called for a conference committee with the Senate on H. 433, the miscellaneous transportation bill, and appointed Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington 2-1, among the committee’s three House members.

A key issue dividing the two versions of the bill is the amount of aid and grants to towns for road and structure repair, Corcoran said.

The House version of the bill allocated $3 million to town highway aid, and added increases in the number of grants and awards for Class 2 roads and structure grants, Corcoran said. The Senate deleted the town highway aid increase, he said, and instead split the $3 million between Class 2 and town structure grants.

There are also differences of opinion over plans to move the New Haven railroad station, and over truck permits for U.S. Route 4.

“There were a few things we wanted to discuss, but how that gets put on the table will be up to the conferees,” fellow Transportation Committee member Rep. Mollie S. Burke, P-Windham 2-2, said. “We were happy that the Senate agreed on funding for various electric vehicle incentive programs. We will see how things shake out.”

The House also gave final approval to S. 15, a bill providing for voting by mail in upcoming general elections. It adds provisions for town clerks to cure defective ballots, and provide secure ballot drop boxes that are accessible 24/7.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.