MONTPELIER — The Vermont Legislature had made preparations for its members to return to the Statehouse in person today for the 2022 session.
The COVID-19 pandemic, as has been the case since it began nearly two years ago, had other plans.
With cases surging, the Senate will convene remotely, while the House will meet in person for the procedural purpose of passing a resolution allowing it to meet remotely for the next two weeks. Both sessions start at 10 a.m., and will be streamed live online on the YouTube House and Senate channels.
The Senate had intended to remain remote for one week, and then potentially vote on a resolution to remain remote until Town Meeting week. But the Legislature’s Joint Rules Committee voted Tuesday, Dec. 28, to proceed remotely for two weeks, then reassess.
House members in attendance will be asked to approve that plan. Beyond that, the agenda will be kept brief, Conor Kennedy, the chief of staff for Speaker Jill Krowinski, said Monday.
“Procedurally we have to vote to give ourselves this authority,” Kennedy explained. “We’ve really told our members we are trying to be conscious of the current surge we are seeing.”
House members were asked to take a pair of rapid antigen tests – in the same manner as the state’s K-12 students – and stay home if they test positive.
The Senate’s rules make it easier for that body to convene remotely. Members who want to come to Montpelier may do so, according to Carolyn Wesley, the chief of state for Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint.
Gov. Phil Scott has also chosen a remote option, and will deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of both bodies at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
While some House members are content with remaining remote, as was the case for the 2021 session, there are those hoping for a return to in-person governance, given the gravity of the business at hand.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said she has “significant concerns” about meeting remotely, given that the agenda will include Proposition 5, a constitutional amendment addressing reproductive rights, and the redrawing of state House and Senate districts with 2020 Census data.
“We are going to discuss major contentious policies related to policing, abortion, climate change and education. Remote legislating is doable. But it requires less conversations and less legislators. That is not good for the minority party or public transparency,” Sibilia said.
That said, “given that remote participation is possible for legislators, lobbyists and members of the public, I’m in favor of requiring vaccinations in order to enter the Statehouse,” she said.
“While I understand the decision to start remotely, I’m concerned about the idea of doing our work remotely while schools, businesses, and most of Vermont remains mostly in-person,” Rep. Michael Nigro, D-Bennington 2-2, said.
“I am disappointed to begin another session remotely, but am optimistic that we can develop a hybrid model which will support health and increased safety for all,” Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Windham 4, added.
Bennington and Windham lawmakers said they remain concerned about the pandemic and its impact on their constituents.
Bos-Lun said she heard most from constituents “concerned about health and safety who want to know how to access vaccines or tests, and question why the state isn’t being more proactive. Many urge more protective policies for schools and in other public settings.”
“One hope is that we find creative ways to support affordable housing, mental health services, and access to child care so that more people are able to return to work safely and make a living,” Rep. Dane Whitman, D-Bennington 2-1, said.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said he’s most concerned about “keeping people safe” in the pandemic, “making certain testing is availability and hospitals have what they need to handle cases.” He said the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs, will start the week hearing “from those on the ground in our schools to understand how we can assist them the best during these challenging times.”
As a member of the House Corrections & Institutions Committee, Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, said the state must address the need for a new women’s corrections facility.
“We’re close to two years since the uncovering of deeply disturbing abuses [at the women’s facility]… and we’re not close to achieving any real measure of accountability at Corrections, much less a fix,” Sullivan said.
Absent a capital correction plan, “let’s start this term with a fix focusing on Vermont women. The Chittenden facility needs to be replaced,” she said.
Sibilia said she’s heard most from constituents about workforce development, Act 250 reform, education finance reform, broadband access and housing. She’s also in favor of indoor mask mandates in schools, requiring vaccinations for all students and staff that can be vaccinated, and setting up supportive remote learning for those who choose not to be vaccinated.
“If the Legislature has the opportunity to require a statewide indoor mask requirement, I would support that, at least until such time as everyone is able to be vaccinated. Vaccine mandates – mandated at the state level – have been found to be constitutional in the courts,” Sibilia said.
She also is hoping the Legislature will finally “acknowledge the harm the flaw in the state education finance system has caused two generations of poor and rural students and towns and all taxpayers since Act 60” by fixing the per-pupil student weights as proposed by a task force last month.