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The Vermont House Thursday unanimously approved a rule change that will allow lawmakers to pass legislation remotely during the Covid-19 crisis.
The vote was held virtually, in a Zoom session with nearly all 150 lawmakers in the chamber attending.
“We’re in an extraordinary time where safety requires that we avoid coming together as a group. And yet we cannot simply suspend our responsibilities,” Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said addressing House members Thursday morning.
Donahue called the remote voting system “clearly flawed,” but said that lawmakers needed a way to pass crucial legislation during the pandemic.
“We must do what we can to make a remote system serve its functions in order to meet essential needs during the time that we’ve declared a state of emergency,” Donahue said.
Lawmakers also passed a series of bills aimed at making procedural changes to help state government and Vermonters during the pandemic.
The vote on Covid-19 bills dragged on for hours Thursday morning and into the afternoon, as legislators had to suspend rules to take up legislation, or expedite the passage of bills, and at the same time grapple with the new remote voting system.
Legislators used an app, Everbridge, to cast their votes. For most, the app worked. But the few who had trouble with the technology had to ask House Clerk Bill MaGill to vote by voice via video chat.
These small problems occurred despite the many training sessions lawmakers went through to learn how to use the technology.
“Murphy’s Law: with these seven practice sessions and 14 committee practice sessions and all of the individual one-on-one sessions, this is the first time we had this issue,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said at one point, as MaGill struggled briefly to get the system to work.
Lawmakers tuned into Thursday’s session from office spaces, and living rooms. Reps. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington, and James Gregoire, R-Fairfield, appeared in front of images of the Statehouse in Montpelier that they had put up on the screen.
Although they were calling in from their homes, most lawmakers were in formal attire.
The 30-member Senate moved to remote voting earlier this month. But the shift took longer for the House. Democratic leaders say this is because they had to get a lot more lawmakers up to speed on using the technology.
“We have to train 150 members. And there are members who live in communities where they don’t have access to broadband, who are struggling to figure out how to make this work from home,” House Majority Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said in an interview this week.
The House also passed a series of bills Thursday.
The House sent S.340 — legislation which gives the treasurer more flexibility to borrow and spend state funds as officials react to the Covid-19 crisis — to the governor’s desk.
Another bill, S.114, which loosens requirements within the state’s judicial system, is headed back to the Senate.
The bill allows deeds to be executed electronically, criminal defendants to appear in court remotely, and extends the statute of limitations for civil cases that would have expired during the state of emergency.
Lawmakers also sent S.341 to Gov. Phil Scott. This legislation gives the Vermont Tax Department the ability to verify the financial information of self-employed and independent contractors applying for unemployment insurance so that they can receive newly introduced federal benefits.
Another bill that was approved by the Senate two weeks ago, S.333, which would place a moratorium on eviction and foreclosure proceedings, has yet to be taken up on the House floor.
As of Thursday afternoon, the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee was still working on the legislation.
Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, said that Thursday’s vote would go down as a “historic day.”
“If someone had suggested a mere few weeks ago that we would have worked our way to this position in the middle of this type of emergency, I really doubt that most of us would have thought the 150 members of the House could have achieved what we did here today.”
“It’s unfortunate that we’re here, but it’s historic and it’s an extraordinary accomplishment.”
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