If you’ve ever visited the Vermont State House during a legislative session, you know how it hums with activity. Legislators sit tucked away in small committee rooms discussing issues of importance to Vermonters, school groups listen to tour guides as they point to the history encompassed in the building, and legislative staff shuffle up and down the stairs to take down testimony that eventually becomes law.
Another thing that is clear, it is usually uncomfortably crowded most of the time. The visiting school groups scramble to figure out where to stow backpacks and eat lunch, advocacy organizations struggle to assemble hundreds of Vermonters who came to the State House to have their voices heard, legislators have no private space to meet with constituents with sensitive concerns, and committee rooms often resemble a New York City subway at rush hour: standing-room only, jostling for seats, feeling uncomfortably close to others in the room. It was an uncomfortable situation before the pandemic; now it feels untenable. We must take this critical opportunity to reimagine how we want the State House to function for all Vermonters in a post-pandemic, 21st Century world.
The Zoom legislative session has been a significant change for legislators, staff, the press corps, and members of the public. Many of us miss the human to human interactions that help shape the collaborative creation of policy, and we’re eager to be back in person together. At the same time, we recognize the benefits of technology that have made committee meetings and House and Senate floor debates more accessible to many Vermonters. We are also newly aware of the physical limitations of the State House when it comes to health, safety, and access and we know we need to improve air quality in the building. With our new shared awareness of public health, it will be difficult to return to these conditions.
In recognition of this, we have started discussions on how to ensure the health and safety of all who access the State House when we return in person. We want to make the most of the lessons learned during the remote legislative session and continue the work to expand accessibility and transparency. These conversations will be made more difficult by the limited space in the current building, but we remain committed to our constitutional charge that states the doors of the General Assembly “shall be open for the admission of all persons.”
However, this conversation is much larger than how we access the capitol next January. It’s about how we ensure access to the People’s House for generations to come. In the next five to 10 years, we have an opportunity to add to our historic State House by creating more public gathering spaces, including larger committee and hearing rooms, that are safe, sustainable, and accessible for all. We can also more fully integrate technology into our physical spaces to ensure ongoing remote public access to legislative proceedings.
The pandemic has been incredibly difficult for all Vermonters, and your legislature has been focused on the response to the health emergency and the economic crisis. Now that more and more Vermonters are vaccinated and the infection rate is declining, we can turn our attention to how we want to emerge from this emergency and the future of the Green Mountain State. This devastating disruption to our lives might also serve as a creative catalyst for imagining new ways that Vermonters can interact with their citizen legislature. At a time when our democracy has faced one of its greatest tests and politics have created great divisiveness across the country, we must stay committed to government by the people, for all people. The Vermont Legislature is using this opportunity to rethink how we do our work for Vermonters and plan for the future. We look forward to engaging with you in the process and creating a space that is more open and accessible than ever before.