Vermont lawmakers to focus on COVID-19 response and budget

Published: Mar. 12, 2020 at 4:28 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are mobilizing to pass a series of bills to help the state respond to the coronavirus pandemic before the Statehouse becomes part of the problem.

Throughout the Statehouse, in every committee room, there's a palpable sense of anxiety. Top lawmakers say the golden dome will stay open for now, but they're suspending all non-essential gatherings.

"Things are changing rapidly where COVID-19 is concerned for the state of Vermont," said House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero.

Governor Phil Scott and top lawmakers are in talks about how best to allocate money and pass new bills. They have to take into account all repercussions of the virus on the workforce, education, and vulnerable populations. If businesses close and people are laid off, lawmakers say workers will need more of a safety net.

"For unemployment insurance, for many, many workers who can't work remotely or hourly workers who don't have benefits and vacations days," Johnson said.

The bills would also address nutrition and resources for schools if they close because of the virus. Lawmakers say thousands of kids could miss meals if schools were forced to close without a backup plan.

"Whenever you have more than one person in a room, decisions take time, and we know time is of the essence," said Senator Becca Balint, D-Windham County.

At the same time, there is growing concerns that the virus will spread to the Statehouse, where many older lawmakers spend all day and then return to their home communities.

The Legislature's Joint Rules Committee is under the microscope because they will determine how the remainder of the session will be conducted.

"We have to be sure that we are still being absolutely transparent in our work while not putting all of the people who work in this building at risk," Balint said.

By law, the Legislature has to pass a budget by July 1st.

Top lawmakers say they're confident they can expedite essential bills dealing with the COVID-19 and also pass a budget.