Analysis: Pandemic forged cooperation in Vt. legislative session

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 4:47 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are reflecting on last week’s completion of the legislative session -- five months defined by remote lawmaking, doling out millions in federal relief cash, and other pandemic relief measures. But the pandemic also made for a session relatively devoid of the usual political drama and posturing.

From the session’s start in an empty House chamber on January 6th, to its conclusion last week over Zoom, Vermont lawmakers made history conducting the session entirely online in the midst of a pandemic. And it was also marked by an absence of the kinds of partisan political battles, nail-biting veto overrides, and policy conflict between the Legislature and governor seen in years past.

“What we’ve gone through in the last 15 months is the greatest crisis Vermont has ever faced,” said Chris Graff, an author and long-time Associated Press Montpelier bureau chief. He says the coronavirus was a unique crisis that clobbered the economy putting over 90,000 out of work.

New Vt. House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington and Senate President Becca Balint, D-Windham County, agree that addressing the health and financial troubles transcended politics. “All of us from all political parties came to the table with a willingness to roll up our sleeves and get things done,” Krowinski said.

“The three of us wanted to go in and reestablish that Vermont has a healthy Democracy,” Balint said.

That goal may have been made easier because money largely wasn’t an issue. Graff says the billion dollars in federal relief cash into state coffers smoothed disagreements. “Instead of arguing around the edges of ‘Can we put $1 million into this or a million into this,’ suddenly we’re talking about lets put $150 million into broadband,” he said.

But the session wasn’t entirely without controversy. A plan to shore up Vermont’s pension funds was met with fierce backlash from teachers and state employees. The matter was largely defused by sending it to a summer study committee

Graff says improved and more frequent communication between the Legislature and Governor Scott helped smooth rough patches, something the governor has said he appreciated. “We don’t agree on everything, but we’re honest about that and we’re able to talk about that,” Scott said.

Now, with the pandemic waning and most restrictions expected to be lifted in the coming week, lawmakers are making plans to come back to Montpelier next session. Though there will be disagreements in the road ahead, Graff says the smooth session could set the stage for more cooperation. “Having this crisis and working together, starting this new foundation for these new legislative leaders, is going to build a stronger foundation going forward,” he said.

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