Women take the reins as Legislature opens ‘coronavirus recovery session’

Capitol Police Officer Brian Hoar raises the Vermont state flag on the opening day of the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 3:10 p.m.

With dozens of legislators logging on to Zoom, and others masked and socially distanced in the Statehouse, Vermont’s Legislature convened on Wednesday, kicking off a historic biennium amid a global pandemic.  

The session began with legislators in the House and Senate choosing new leaders, and for the first time in state history, both are women. As expected, the Senate elected Becca Balint, D-Windham, as Senate president pro tempore, and the House elected Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, as House speaker. 

The Legislature faces unprecedented challenges as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to rage. Legislative leaders have said they will focus this year on confronting the Covid-19 crisis. They will also work with Republican Gov. Phil Scott to address a massive budget gap caused by the impact of the pandemic on state revenues.

While the legislative work will focus on the coronavirus, the effects of how the pandemic has changed human interaction were on full display Wednesday in the Statehouse.

At the Covid-19 designated points of entry to the building, there are now heat imaging machines that look reminiscent of HAL 9000 of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” 

The technology is a NMS imaging system called the “scantizer” which has a camera that uses heat imaging to read the human body’s temperature. If the body heat reads as normal, the machine says “pass” and an individual may enter the building.

Janet Miller, the Statehouse sergeant-at-arms, bemoaned that if someone is carrying a hot coffee, the machine will recommend not allowing entry.

“That’s a bit problematic,” she said.

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On the ground floor of the building, senators milled around ahead of the 10 a.m. ceremony. 

The larger meeting rooms (10 and 11) had been organized to accommodate social distancing for the 19 senators who attended in person. The coatroom’s function was also changed and is no longer a place for people to store snowy boots and jackets. Instead, it’s now another place for lawmakers to talk without getting too close to each other. A sign outside the room announces the capacity is now capped at 10 people.

The Statehouse cafeteria was a ghost town on Wednesday — closed for business without any patrons and with only one chair set up at each table throughout the spacious room.

Inside a nearly empty House chamber, standing at the dais surrounded by a tall plastic divider and framed by two large projector screens, Krowinski said the Legislature’s work in 2021 will be remembered as “the coronavirus recovery session.”

“This virus has demonstrated the gaps in services Vermonters rely on. Whether it’s access to broadband, child care, or housing, or mental health supports, we’ve seen too many Vermonters struggling to balance their needs,” Krowinski said. “The responsibility before all of us is to provide our constituents with the support they need right now. We must chart a path forward, and it must be on a course that leaves no one behind.”

The only other House members present were Majority Leader Emily Long, D-Newfane, Minority Leader Patricia McCoy, R-Poultney, and Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington.

Just as Krowinski was officially elected speaker of the House, applause could be heard from the Senate chamber as Balint ended her first remarks as the leader of the upper chamber.

Both Krowinski and Balint, the first woman and openly gay person to lead the Vermont Senate, struck a similar theme with their speeches.

“Our immediate work will continue to be addressing the effects and the impact of the ongoing pandemic, and how to create better systems going forward to help our constituents,” Balint said. “The entire country is weary from the pandemic, but the virus doesn’t care. We must continue to address the disease caused by the health emergency, and the fear and doubt that our constituents feel.”

Balint was elected to the Senate in 2014 and became the Democratic majority leader two years later. 

Krowinski has been a fixture of the speaker’s office off and on for years. She first worked there in 2005, when she was hired as then-speaker Gaye Symington’s top aide. She was appointed to the House by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2012 to fill a vacancy, and was Democratic majority leader in the House from 2017 to 2020. 

Until at least March, legislators plan to conduct their business remotely, via the online teleconferencing app Zoom. They will reevaluate whether they can resume some work in person closer to Town Meeting Day on March 2 when lawmakers take a weeklong break. 

Whether they bring some of their business back into the Statehouse will depend on the state of Covid-19 cases in Vermont, which have increased in recent months.

While the House decided against meeting in person on Wednesday, the Senate had more of the normal pomp and circumstance of the first day of a legislative session. 

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Groups of seven senators at a time were allowed to enter the upper chamber to read their oath. Waiting in line, Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, murmured that the lieutenant governor’s pulpit looked more like the “bridge on the starship Enterprise” than the Senate chamber.

In his last act in the role, outgoing Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman presided over the 19 senators who appeared in person Wednesday. He spoke into a camera trained on his head, while large flat-screen televisions showed the chamber, plus the 11 members who decided to attend the proceedings virtually.

The Senate passed bureaucratic motions that will allow the chamber to legislate remotely for the foreseeable future.

As custom dictates, when all the senators, the Senate president pro tem and the secretary of the Senate were sworn in, four lawmakers were assigned to tell the governor that the upper chamber was ready for the new session. Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, Minority Leader Randy Brock, and Sens. Brian Campion and Chris Pearson walked down the hall to Gov. Phil Scott’s office to tell him the Senate was ready.

Scott, however, was not. 

After knocking vigorously just to make sure, the four lawmakers returned to the chamber, laughing at the parliamentary necessity.

While many senators were struck by the oddities of the first day of the new session, Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand-Isle, who has been in the Senate since the mid-1980s, said he did not feel things were very different from past years.

“Today was pretty similar to others because there were so many senators here,” Mazza said. “The tough part is going to come next week.”

However, another longtime senator, Democrat Jane Kitchel, said the experience was very unusual.

“First of all, you can see how distant we have to be,” she said. “Normally, people would be shaking hands, hugging one another.

“It’s all very reflective of the current environment that we’re dealing with but I think it also shows our commitment to keep moving and making the adaptations and our respect for the work and for one another,” Kitchel said.

In an interview, Benning, Kitchel’s district-mate, said simply trying to figure out how to enter the building showed how strange the day was.

“First I couldn’t get through the front gate because my card apparently expired,” he said. “Then I went to the back door, where we were told we were supposed to come in, only to find that we had to go to the loading dock door.”

Benning said the interior of the Senate chamber shocked him.

“You go through several years of getting used to a chamber that is sacrosanct. Normally we have no electronics allowed or anything else and all of a sudden we’re looking like the bridge on the starship Enterprise,” Benning said, again trying out the Star Trek line.

“All those things leave us feeling like we’re somewhat out of place,” he said.

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who enters her second term in the Senate, said the proceedings this year are different from what she experienced in 2019.

“I feel really sad for the new senators that they didn’t get time in the spotlight,” said Hardy, and it is the same for the new House members who were unable to come to the building in person.

Senators take their oaths of office remotely on the opening day of the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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