Politics

Panel moves toward recommending a return to the Statehouse with only minor changes

Vermont Statehouse
The Vermont Statehouse on August 24, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont lawmakers appear poised to recommend the Statehouse reopen in January 2022 with few changes to how it operated prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the 13-member Legislative Advisory Committee on the Statehouse voted 9-1 in favor of recommending that all the main policy and money panels meet in the Statehouse in 2022. The advisory group is now tasked with coming up with a possible framework for how to ensure committee rooms are not too crowded next winter.

The vote to recommend all “standing” committees meet in the Statehouse followed a long debate about whether there was enough time to properly retrofit the building’s air quality and ventilation system or make any other large renovations — making spaces more comfortable and safer against Covid-19 and other airborne illnesses.

The Statehouse was closed during the 15-month Covid-19 shutdown, but reopened to the public on July 6, even as the advisory panel works on its plans for using the building in the 2022 legislative session.

The advisory group, which must file a report by Aug. 15 on how best to reopen the Statehouse, came to a consensus Tuesday that there was not enough time for any major changes, leaving only minor cosmetic tweaks to be considered.

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, said she was wary of recommending unachievable goals, which could give people a false impression.

“I don’t want to over-promise to people,” she said. “I don’t want people to think just because they’re in my room they’re safe from Covid. They may be safe from other things but the worry they will bring with them is Covid. “

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, agreed that enhanced air quality standards could not be met by 2022, but advocated that the advisory panel consider using additional spaces in the Statehouse and limiting how many people can be in each committee room.

“I’m afraid that if we go back to more or less the same configuration, with some adjustments, people will go back to do what they did before,” Hardy said, referring to cramped and stuffy rooms.

Hardy said the Statehouse was far from “comfortable and safe” before Covid-19 and that legislators should take this moment to make some thoughtful changes.

“We need to mix up something enough to remind ourselves that things are different and that we need to be vigilant,” she said.

Lawmakers considered possibly dividing the legislative lounge, a large room that has been open to legislators only, into two committee rooms. Another idea was to lend some of the Senate rooms to the House of Representatives.

While these discussions will continue, most legislators on Tuesday agreed that the Vermont Statehouse should be renovated and expanded in the coming years.

Senate Majority Leader Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, said that the Statehouse expansion project has been talked about for decades. Clarkson added that legislators and staff members might feel better about the limited changes coming in 2022 if they knew that larger renovations were on the horizon.

“For a long time we have been needing to expand the Statehouse,” she said. “I think people would be far more willing to really be patient as long as they know we are working on plans to expand the Statehouse.”

“We can be very efficient about this temporary solution if we know we’re working long term on a long term solution,” Clarkson added.

Tuesday’s meeting was the third time the advisory committee met to discuss the Statehouse. The previous two had been dominated by talk of possibly requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination to enter the building.
However, last week the panel voted against recommending any vaccination requirement, instead opting for the Legislature to strongly encourage that people coming to the building receive a shot.

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Kit Norton

About Kit

Kit Norton is the general assignment reporter at VTDigger. He is originally from eastern Vermont and graduated from Emerson College in 2017 with a degree in journalism. In 2016, he was a recipient of The Society of Environmental Journalists' Emerging Environmental Journalist award. Kit has worked at PRI's weekly radio environmental program, Living on Earth, and has written for the online news site Truthout.

Email: [email protected]

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