The possibilities for expanding the Vermont Capitol are on the minds of members of the Legislative Advisory Committee.
For years, many who frequent the Statehouse complex have expressed concern about the size of committee rooms and airflow in the building. Pandemic protocols have only made an addition feel more urgent.
Possibilities for expanding the historic building include adding a floor above the cafeteria to provide more committee rooms. The cafeteria was built with the intention of adding another story eventually, so it is already designed to support the weight of an addition.
“There’s many options, but we just don’t know where we’re going to land,” Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Springfield, said at the advisory committee’s meeting last week.
“There is broad agreement across both chambers that the building does not meet the needs of the century in which we are trying to do our work,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, who, though not on the committee, ultimately has a vote in whether or not to approve funding for an addition.
Balint pointed to some of the building’s flaws — inadequate access for people with disabilities, cramped committee rooms and inefficient flow throughout the building. Even bringing school groups to visit can be difficult, she said.
When Balint was a social studies teacher and brought students to the Statehouse, there often was not enough room for them to eat in the cafeteria, nowhere for them to put their backpacks and no space for a quiet gathering for discussion, she said.
Since the pandemic, the lack of space has become even more apparent, she said.
“We know that this health emergency is pushing us to see space in different ways and how much space we all feel safe working in has changed,” Balint said.
In other words, while small committee rooms may have always been an inconvenience, now they are a public health concern.
Balint emphasized that any Statehouse addition would be to serve the public, not legislators.
“It’s the people’s house,” she said. “We have to actually make it work for the people of Vermont, and we feel it’s not working for them because there is not enough space for people to interact comfortably, and safely, with their legislators.”
Emmons, who chairs the advisory committee, said any expansion decisions are still months away at least, and construction may not begin for more than a year should an addition be approved. However, there are advantages to that.
With a new hybrid model of government, in which constituents can opt to participate in legislative proceedings via video call, space needs in the Capitol may change.
”We have to think about what are the needs of the public accessing the building, and what are the needs of legislative staff, and how the whole building will operate,” Emmons said.
The idea of an addition is not new, Balint said. What is new is that the Legislature thinks it will have the money to build one, courtesy of federal money from the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act and the pending federal infrastructure bill.
“This is not just about the Legislature and our needs. It’s about Vermonters,” Balint said. “We don’t have our own offices. We’re not going to have our own offices. This is about creating a space that works for the public.”
Another concern is the symmetry of the Statehouse complex, which is currently asymmetrical when viewed from the front.
For now, a Statehouse expansion is just something the legislative advisory committee is considering. Nothing will be approved until the Legislature gets a chance to consider the idea in January.
“There’s no way you’re going to put a shovel in the ground for any addition next summer,” Emmons said, though the summer of 2023 would be a possibility.
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