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Vermont Senate takes up COVID-19 measures

(WCAX)
Published: Mar. 24, 2020 at 9:22 AM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers returned to the Statehouse Tuesday to vote on a package of bills tackling the immediate effects of COVID-19, including widespread layoffs and increasing health care access.

Only 17 out of 30 Senators attended the morning floor session, just above the bare minimum to take a vote.

"Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic is not the priority, it is our only priority at this point," said Senate President Time Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County.

The emergency meeting was physically closed to the public and non-essential staff, except for lawmakers and a handful of reporters. During the vote, precautions were taken to maintain social distancing, making sure lawmakers sat six-feet apart.

The bills approved expand unemployment benefits for people effected by the coronavirus and let more health care workers provide care. Other elements would allow state and local elections to go forward later in the year and it temporarily modifies the state's open meeting laws so local government can function remotely.

"The enemy we have right now, none of us know how long that enemy is going to be before us. But when that enemy is gone, trying to repair the damage, I think you're going to see a lot of people work together to figure out how to come out of that hole," said Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia County.

Though the bills provide temporary aid, lawmakers are also leery of a gaping hole in revenue. By June, Vermont's general fund is slated to lose $100 million. This means the legislative session could go into the fall.

"We are not going to have the financial information by the end of April, or the middle, or maybe the end of May, or maybe the end of June, or maybe the end of July, to have a budget for next year," Ashe said.

As lawmakers forge through the unknown in the months ahead, there's bipartisan support to help Vermonters through the challenges posed by the pandemic.

"Someone who has a family member at Burlington Health and Rehab -- those are the people with the real hardships. So, for us, we're appreciative that it would be totally out of step to be complaining about teleconferencing," Ashe said.

The house will meet Wednesday to vote on the bills. Only caucus leaders and a few Independents are slated to show up so they can still maintain social distancing. The Senate was expected to reconvene Friday.

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