Greg Sukiennik: Look ahead, Vermont | Legislature's return no easy feat

Vermont legislators attend various committee meetings at the State House, in Montpelier, Vt., on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020.

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The full Legislature returns to work Tuesday to set a complete fiscal 2021 budget for the state of Vermont. As they have since March, they'll do so virtually from their homes and offices, rather than at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

For months now, the people who run Vermont have largely done so over video conferencing from their home offices. It's been a sea change for the Legislature in particular, and it's come with positives and negatives.

We've heard from Southern Vermont legislators that they appreciate the benefits of technology, but they miss the personal connections and friendships that make the work fulfilling. We're told the resulting lack of personal interaction is most frustrating when the bodies are handling complex or controversial proposals, because it's in those that times that the friendships that transcend party and geography help promote understanding and compromise. If and when the Legislature returns to in-person governance, live streaming video of its proceedings will remain in place, leaders and rank-and-file members have told us. They've said the access that technology provides to Vermonters who otherwise could not attend in person has been a game-changer.

In the past, for Bennington and Windham County residents, attending a session or a hearing meant a two-hour drive to Montpelier. For people without a car, or child care, or the ability to take a day off from work, that made participating in state government difficult. Now, attending a hearing is as easy as clicking on a link. You can watch as it happens or whenever you find time. And unlike in-person attendance, you can rewind to hear a statement you missed, pause for a bathroom break or a snack, or skip ahead to issues that matter most to you.

ELBOW ROOM

That being said, folks want to know: When will the House and Senate return to in-person governance in Montpelier?

It could be a very long time.

Consider the straight talk in a preliminary report from consultants studying the Statehouse complex for the Joint Legislative Management Committee, the House and Senate panel in charge of the General Assembly's working conditions.

"There is no functional way to conduct committee business in the current/previous arrangement," the report says. "Under COVID guidelines, there is no space within the Capitol Complex large enough to hold the House of Representatives, much less a joint session."

The House chamber regularly can hold 300 people. Under COVID guidelines, it can safely hold 70. That's not just the House floor, mind you, but the entire chamber, including the floor and the galleries.

That's less than the House quorum of 76 lawmakers.

The Statehouse's famously cozy conference rooms are even worse. The largest such chamber, Room 11, can hold 95 people in regular conditions. In COVID conditions, it can hold 23. The smaller meeting rooms would be restricted to single-digit occupancy.

All this poses a significant hurdle: How do you host a session-opening joint session of 180 lawmakers, plus statewide elected officials, families and media, in a room that can only safely hold 70 people?

The annual joint sessions are not optional. They're when lawmakers certify election results and elect leaders. Without them, you don't have a functioning government.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said Thursday that it's possible the joint sessions that kick off the biennium might need to be held somewhere else. One possibility could be the Barre Auditorium, just nine miles away. Many Vermonters know it as the host site for the state's high school basketball championships.

A final report on what it would take to re-open the Statehouse is due by the end of the month.

MORE REASONS TO LOVE VERMONT

As a correspondent covering state government, the lack of in-person sessions is bit of a bummer. The Vermont State House and Montpelier are both beautiful, and the two-hour drive is enjoyable when the weather is nice. (Ask me again in February.)

I look forward to when I can spend more time in the state capital, and here's a small example of why.

Last Thursday, I drove to Montpelier to report on the Democrats' post-primary unity rally on the Statehouse lawn. I parked my car on State Street, took a few photos of the Statehouse and adjacent buildings, then walked over to the rally.

Two and a half hours quickly disappeared in the midsummer heat.

Then I headed back across State Street to my car and ... wait a minute. Oh, no. Where were my car keys?

I had accidentally left them on the passenger seat. Of my unlocked car. In plain view. For two and a half hours. And I still had a car.

Either people are really nice here, or no one wanted a 10-year-old Honda.

Greg Sukiennik is Vermont Statehouse editor for the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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