Politics

Legislature to temporarily adjourn due to coronavirus concerns

Signs are up at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, March 10, 2020, encouraging people to practice good hygiene to fight the COVID-19 virus. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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This article was updated at 4:27 p.m. on March 13.

The Vermont Legislature has moved to adjourn for the next week in response to mounting concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Joint Rules Committee passed a motion this morning to introduce resolutions to adjourn until March 24, with the possibility to extend the adjournment if necessary. 

The Statehouse will be shut down during this time with only essential IT personnel and cleaning employees allowed in. 

The committee also passed a motion to ensure that all Statehouse employees, including those who are paid hourly, continue being paid over the recess. 

During the adjournment lawmakers will plan out what high-priority bills, like the budget and transportation bills, need to be pushed out after the recess. Crossover rules were also suspended specifically for those high priority bills. 

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said Friday that the circumstances that would allow lawmakers to return to Montpelier are unclear. 

“We’ll see what happens next week. Honestly, two weeks ago Vermont was in a very different position. So a week or two from now, I can’t imagine where we’ll be,” Johnson said. 

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Ashe and Johnson both acknowledged that the Statehouse could be shut down for weeks, or months, depending on the spread of the virus. 

Shutting down next week will give legislators an opportunity to prepare the technology and establish methods by which they will be able to work outside of Montpelier. 

“We are setting up infrastructure and doing some trial runs so that if we have to be out of here for multiple weeks, or a month or two months, we have a system in place that allows legislative work to continue to be done while preserving public access to the decision-making process,” Ashe said. 

Senate committees are planning to work remotely next week, but House committees will not because they need more time to set up the technology to do so, Johnson said. 

Working from afar, lawmakers will be able to vote on bills in committee, but they will not be able to vote on bills out of either of their respective chambers.

Ashe said that although lawmakers will be working via conference call and video chat, members of the public and the press will be able to listen to their deliberations. 

The lawmakers also said that depending on the state of the virus and their limitations in the coming weeks, they may have to focus on passing only a handful of essential pieces of legislation, including the state budget, and leave other measures behind. 

Joint Rules Committee
The Joint Rules Committee has been discussing how how business will be conducted while the Statehouse is closed due to coronavirus concerns. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“I’m seeing in the faces of legislators an appreciation that there may be a moment where some bills which under normal years would have plenty of time to go through the process, we might say ‘You know what we’re going to go with a batch of prioritized legislation and we can’t do every single thing that we would normally do,’” Ashe said.  

Sen. Dick Sears, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Friday that he didn’t support the decision for the Legislature to temporarily adjourn and that he didn’t believe that lawmakers were ready to begin remote work. 

“I suspect many of my constituents feel like we’re deserting the problem by leaving,” Sears said on the Senate floor Friday. “I feel strongly that this is not the right time. If the Department of Health said that it’s time to close down, I might have supported this.” 

Ashe said that he wanted to give lawmakers a chance to “take stock of the situation” so that they can determine “how the rest of the session will unfold.”

“I would rather do the thing that we know will protect the most peoples’ health rather than take more risky chances to avoid some of the more awkward transition moments that we’re about to embark on,” he said.

After Sears’ remarks, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, P/D, who presides over the Senate, noted that two thirds of the members of the chamber are over 60. He said it is important to consider working remotely to ensure lawmakers’ “health and wellbeing.”

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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