Vermont Legislature adapting to remote lawmaking

Published: Apr. 7, 2020 at 5:38 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are trying to keep the legislative session on track during the coronavirus outbreak. And like millions of Americans going online from their homes or offices, some face a steep learning curve.

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned state government on its head, forcing lawmakers to be creative in how they meet and re-arrange their priorities.

"Legislation that's going to help protect Vermonters and help weather this economic storm for Vermonters," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

The vast majority of what lawmakers are focusing on deals with the economic and social fallout from the pandemic, but several House committees have been conducting other non-virus related business.

Johnson says that with 150 House members, some of that business is to help acquaint lawmakers to the legislature's new workflow. "In order for us to respond quickly, we need to be able to work remotely and be able to be comfortable with the technology," she said.

But some committees have pulled key figures in the Scott administration away from more critical work responding to the emergency. Johnson says they've been open and flexible with officials who are working around the clock dealing with the virus. "We're working our way through and really trying to balance that legislative constitutional responsibility of setting the policy and allocating the resources, and balancing that with the emergency needs on the front lines," she said.

On Wednesday, the Senate is slated to follow the House in approving remote voting. Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County, says as they explores new avenues of democracy, it actually opens up the process for Vermonters.

"Other than paid lobbyists, there's very few citizens that can access the Statehouse. My hope is that during the short period of time that we operate remotely, many Vermonters -- maybe hundreds, maybe thousands -- will actually watch our deliberations, see us in action and make it open to them," Ashe said.

Both the House and Senate's rules on remote voting are only temporary and will expire when Vermont's state of emergency ends.