Montpelier, VT — On Tuesday, Vermont lawmakers convened for the 2022 legislative session and voted to meet remotely for the first two weeks.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D) said that given the ongoing COVID surge fueled by the Omicron variant, it was the right choice to make.
“I believe it’s definitely the best decision for us to work remotely for the first two weeks, just looking at the latest numbers, the hospitalizations, the increase in the weekly positivity rate,” Krowinski said. “I think it’s really important that we start off our work in a way that is productive and we don’t have to shut down.”
The Vermont Senate had already arranged to begin the year remotely. The House approved the two-week remote work period in a 106 to 19 vote at the State House.
While the measure received strong support, some lawmakers weren’t as keen on legislating through a computer screen.
Rep. Laura Sibilia (I) said given the time and money spent preparing the State House for a safe 2022 session, it feels wasteful to hold off on going back.
“The work and investments that have gone into this building to make it safe for legislators to participate in person and remotely in a hybrid fashion, it’s pretty significant,” Sibilia said. “This building is ready for people to be in it.”
Rep. Sibilia and others also expressed concern that going remote sends the wrong message to Vermonters.
“We’re sending our kids in, we’re sending our teachers in, we’re sending our healthcare workers in. My daughter is a nurse in another state, the amount of stress they’re under, it’s not okay and they don’t have the same provisions so it’s time,” Rep. Sibilia said.
“I felt very strongly then and continue to feel strongly that it was the wrong decision, that it sends the wrong message to Vermonters, and that it’s bad for the development of good, strong public policy,” said Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R).
While some lawmakers have suggested that working remotely makes it difficult to develop policy, reach across the aisle or have productive conversations, others said the format does have its upside.
“We got an enormous amount of stuff done in the midst of a pandemic, and we were only able to do that because we were able to operate remotely,” said Sen. Randy Brock (R). “It’s also important to note that we had more public participation in our committee sessions remotely than we ever did when we were live.”
House Minority Leader Patricia McCoy (R) voted in favor of going remote for two weeks, and said it was a compromise with Speaker Krowinski. Initially, some lawmakers were considering a longer stretch of remote work.
“I know there’s some frustration that we’re not going to be back in this building right now, but the health and safety of the legislators that will come in here and work as well as the staff that is here took precedence for me,” McCoy said.
On Wednesday, Governor Phil Scott will deliver the annual State of the State address. Like last year, it will happen without a crowded audience in the House Chambers.
In recent months, Scott has often been critical of legislative leaders amid calls for stricter COVID-19 protocols, but this session will likely require both sides to come to the table in order to pass key legislation for Vermonters.
“I hope we can kick off this session working together to make sure that we build the strongest recovery plan that leaves no Vermonter behind,” Krowinski said. “I am optimistic that we can start this off and focus on the issues and policies where I know we have some consensus.”
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint (D) outlined her key priorities on Tuesday, with a big focus on making the most of Vermont’s historic influx of federal stimulus money.
“This means real and sizeable investments, with much-needed policy support in pandemic response, addressing the housing crisis, meeting our critical workforce shortage, protecting our climate and planet, accountability in our criminal justice system, supporting our teachers, public employees and their pensions, and enshrining reproductive rights in our constitution.”
Governor Scott will deliver his State of the State address at 2 pm on Wednesday, and Krowinski and Balint have scheduled a response for 3:15 pm.