Politics

Vermont Senate preparing to come back in person March 8

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Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, speaks during a special session of the Legislature at the Statehouse on Nov. 22. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Senate is gearing up to come back to the Statehouse in person March 8 — after the Legislature reconvenes from its weeklong town meeting break. 

Both legislative chambers began the session at the start of January remotely due to Covid-19, but the House returned to Montpelier in a hybrid format three weeks later. Save for leadership occasionally entering the building, senators have been legislating virtually since the pandemic struck the state in March 2020.

The Senate Rules Committee took no formal action Thursday, but Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, told the five-member panel that the chamber’s committee chairs and party leaders had come to an informal consensus to return to Montpelier after the recess. 

If the current decline in Covid-19 cases continues apace, Balint suggested the rules committee meet early the week before Town Meeting Day to formalize the decision.

“The thought was to give people that anticipated time of return, give them an opportunity to put things in place,” Balint said, adding that she wanted to “hear from the committee about the issues that we should be thinking about as we plan for this.”

“Traditionally, we haven't had technology in the chamber. What's that going to look like once we go back?” asked Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D/P-Rutland.

Balint replied that leadership appears to agree that senators would need to appear in person to vote on the floor. If that’s what the rules committee decides, she said, the old Senate rules would kick back in, which prohibit computers and tablets from being used in the Senate chamber. 

Senate Secretary John Bloomer said plans were underway to install three cameras in the chamber — one on the presiding officer and two on the floor. But if senators wanted to allow remote votes in select circumstances, that could be accommodated, he said.

“In case for some reason the rules committee will permit people who have been quarantined to participate remotely, we have some ideas on how to make that work,” Bloomer said.

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, said he understood most lawmakers were eager to get back in the building but that the remote setup had its advantages, particularly as committees take testimony from witnesses.

“It is giving people the ability to testify and not have to worry about how many could come in a room two at a time or whatever,” he said. 

Bloomer replied that, modeled on the system currently in place in the House, the Statehouse’s information technology crew had set up Senate committee rooms to allow for in-person and remote participation.

“You can have real hybrids if that's what you decide. Or you can have all your members be present and have witnesses remote. You limit people in the room. You can still be broadcasting them. We have been trying to get you as much flexibility as possible,” he said.

Separately, the House voted Thursday to extend its current hybrid work model at least until March 8.

Riley Robinson contributed reporting.

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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