Politics

Final Reading: The sequel no one was waiting for

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden, left, chats with Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, March 23. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

There are several sequels coming to the big screen this year, dear reader: Avatar 2, another Top Gun and even Sonic the Hedgehog 2, for those who are so inclined. 

And it looks like we get mask battles, the remix. Cheers!

At a Joint Rules Committee meeting Wednesday morning, lawmakers deliberated when, how and whether to lift the Statehouse mask requirement. 

“We said we’re gonna follow the science,” Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said at a Joint Rules Committee meeting. “Well, (what) the science is telling us is masks should be optional.”

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, Brock and others asked what benchmarks the Legislature would use to end the requirement, since it has so far declined to relax mask mandates, as suggested by the current state and federal guidance. 

Most members signaled they would prefer to keep the requirement in place, at least for a bit longer. Several voiced concerns about crowded committee rooms, unvaccinated or immunocompromised family members and the emerging subvariant of Omicron, BA.2.

But Brock and Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, pushed them to pick up the pace, or at least set a concrete timeline. 

“People are gonna get Covid. Some are gonna get long Covid. That’s just reality,” Brock said.

Wednesday’s meeting followed days of simmering discontent among some lawmakers, reflected in two letters lawmakers sent to the committee asking them to reconsider the requirement. The first letter had only Republican signatures, but the second request, from a group of 47, included some Democrats and independents. 

While McCoy, the House minority leader, did not join her colleagues in signing either letter, she voiced strong opposition to the policy at Wednesday’s meeting. 

“I don’t know why we hold that building to a higher standard than those citizens that elect us to sit in these chairs,” McCoy said. “I have a huge problem with that, that we insulate ourselves.” 

Last week saw the highest number yet of legislative staff out of work due to Covid-19, according to House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington. This week, three House members are absent due to Covid, she said. 

One senator was absent Wednesday because Covid kept their child home from school, according to Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor. 

The Office of Legislative Counsel preferred to keep the mask requirement in place, while Legislative Operations staff had mixed responses, Krowinski told the committee. 

Clarkson suggested the committee use a Google form to poll lawmakers and staff on their mask preferences, but Brock was not so sure. 

“I have questions about using Google polls to make public health decisions,” Brock said. 

“I don’t disagree, but actually we’re now on an opinion basis here,” replied Clarkson, the Senate’s majority leader.

The committee agreed to take a vote on the mask policy next Tuesday. 

— Riley Robinson


ON THE MOVE

A bill that would make it easier for people to amend their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity is one step closer to becoming law. H.628 would allow Vermonters to change the documents using a self-attestation process and adds a third nonbinary gender option.

The measure passed out of the House in February. On Wednesday, the Senate gave the measure its preliminary approval via voice vote. The chamber did not amend the bill, which has been championed by Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, the General Assembly’s first openly transgender lawmaker.

Small worked in concert with the Vermont Department of Health to craft the bill. Jason Maulucci, Gov. Phil Scott’s press secretary, said the governor supports the initiative.

“He thinks it will be another positive step forward in our efforts to make Vermont a more welcoming and inclusive state,” Maulucci said.

Venn Sage Wylder drove from Burlington to watch the vote — four years after they first asked the Vermont Department of Health to amend their birth certificate. 

The Senate’s approval felt like a relief, Wylder said, but they noted many other kinds of documents, such as in insurance and medical care, still don’t acknowledge nonbinary people. 

“We know that having our identities validated saves lives,” they said. 

— Lola Duffort and Riley Robinson

The Vermont Senate voted Wednesday to advance legislation that would set limits on public money going to private and religious schools. A final vote on the bill, S.219, is expected later this week, after which the measure would move to the House. 

The bill would require private schools, often called independent schools, to follow all anti-discrimination laws that currently apply to public schools. And it would prohibit religious schools from using public tuition dollars “to support religious instruction, religious indoctrination, religious worship, or the propagation of religious views.”

The Board of Education would have the authority to enforce those requirements.

Lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Education spent weeks hashing out the provisions of the bill. But on the Senate floor, it passed with little fanfare.

The only legislator to speak against the proposed legislation was Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who called for the state to stop sending public money to religious schools altogether.

The state needs to find “a long-term solution that will not permit public money to be used for the support of private education or religious education,” Hardy said. “This is feasible within our system.”

The bill ultimately passed a floor vote amid only a handful of nays.

Read more here.

— Peter D’Auria

The House on Wednesday advanced a bill to establish a state commission to study the history of racism, discrimination and eugenics in Vermont statutes.

H.96, which was approved by a 109-30 vote on its second reading, builds on last year’s Joint House Resolution 2: a four-page-long, unanimously supported apology for a 1931 law which legalized eugenics via sterilization in Vermont.

As part of last year’s resolution, the state promised to take legislative steps to study the effects of the 1931 law and other forms of discrimination in Vermont, and attempt to repair the harm done over generations. Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, said H.96 is the first piece of legislation in that process, and it “goes beyond responding to eugenics.”

Read more here.

— Sarah Mearhoff

The Senate voted out S.250, a broad bill offering numerous police reforms, including collecting data on police use of force statewide as well as the establishment of a citizen committee to oversee police. The bill no longer contains a section ending qualified immunity for police as it did in its original form. 

Before the final vote, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, stood to answer some lingering questions about portions of the bill, including how prosecutors could use a database of alleged police misconduct. 

Prosecutors would have discretion in whether they disclosed information in the registry to the defense, Ram Hinsdale said. 

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said because of the police registry, he would not support the bill.  

“It is my personal belief, as a criminal defense attorney, that one should never gather data on someone merely because an allegation has been made about them,” Benning said. 

The bill passed on a voice vote and will now proceed to the House. 

— Riley Robinson and Sarah Mearhoff


IN CONGRESS

On the third day of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., drew the ire of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for a line of questioning that Leahy later called “outrageous.”

Leahy is a longtime, influential member of the committee, having served as its former chair and now as president pro tempore of the Senate, and has backed Jackson’s nomination to the bench from the start.

Going beyond his allotted 20 minutes, Graham interrupted Jackson numerous times as she attempted to answer his questions on her past sentences given as a judge as well as her opinion on the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Eventually, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, interjected, telling Graham to let Jackson speak.

— Sarah Mearhoff


WHAT’S FOR LUNCH

The cafeteria will be serving beef lo mein on Thursday, said chef Bryant Palmer. 

— Riley Robinson


WHAT WE’RE READING

With School Masking Guidance Lifted, Families With Medically Fragile Kids Feel Forgotten (Seven Days)

‘It’s of biblical proportions’: Vermonters contend with mud season unlike any in recent memory (Valley News)

Vacant Homes Everywhere (New York Times)

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Riley Robinson

About Riley

Riley Robinson is a general assignment and multimedia reporter, covering stories across the state in writing, photos and video. She is a graduate of Northeastern University's School of Journalism and first joined the Digger newsroom as a Dow Jones News Fund intern.

Email: [email protected]

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