State News

2021 legislative session is off to a productive start

By Sen. Alison Clarkson

Last week’s successful presidential inaugural celebration on Jan. 20 was a powerful reminder of how precious our democracy is. Central to its viability is the peaceful transfer of power. Until now, I am not sure I’ve fully appreciated this. After the attempted violent insurrection in Washington DC on Jan. 6 – I think we are all clearer on both the fragility and resiliency of our democracy. It was such a moving inaugural. Every participant did a splendid job – even the person disinfecting the podium! From Lady Gaga’s commanding performance of our national anthem to Amanda Gorman’s poetry, it was extraordinary. And, our new president struck the right chord by focusing his inaugural address on the values we share, rather than on policies which may divide us.

Despite the enormous challenges we face, it is wonderful to know we have an experienced leadership team in charge. I feel optimism as we begin the work of healing our divisions and inequities and rebuilding America.

Here in Vermont the 2021 legislative session is off to a productive start. Within the first two weeks we have passed a bill through both the House and the Senate, and it has been signed by the governor. This bill, H.48, gives towns and municipal bodies the additional flexibility they need to navigate the challenges the Covid pandemic presents for Town Meeting.

Last year, the Legislature gave all municipal bodies the ability to use the Australian ballot for their annual meetings. Municipal bodies include towns and school and fire districts. This year, we added further choices, allowing them to change the date of their annual meeting and to mail ballots out to their residents.  In addition, it gives the secretary of state some flexibility to work with municipalities on organizational and administrative issues. To support this, $2 million have been set aside by the state from the CARES Act money to reimburse municipalities if they choose to mail out ballots to their voters.

There are other issues around elections which our House and Senate governor operations committees will be exploring this year. The Legislature is only able to make changes to our election laws in non-election years. So, this is the year to have those discussions and debates, and propose changes. At the moment, we are looking at a wide range of proposals (from rank choice voting to prohibiting corporate contributions to methods of keeping the checklist more up to date to making “mail out” ballots permanent). We will be taking these ideas up for consideration very soon.

I continue to serve as vice-chair of the Senate economic development, housing and general affairs committee, and on the Senate government operations committee. In response to the on-going pandemic, our Senate economic development committee passed out an extension on our worker’s compensation Covid-19 provisions from last year. Clearly not thinking this pandemic was to be so long-lived, we had set a sunset of Jan. 15. It is now our intent to have these provisions continue until 30 days after the termination of the governor’s emergency executive order. This allows for the presumption of compensability of Covid-19 related claims for workers compensation during the emergency period for certain frontline workers. It will also make Worker’s Comp more available to workers who get Covid-19. To be covered, workers will have to have had a heightened risk of infection. And while the claims will be rebuttable, the presumption will be that the disease was contracted on the job.

We are also working on a bill which extends the Covid provisions affecting unemployment insurance benefits.

Sen. Clarkson can be reached by email: [email protected] or by phone at 457-4627. 

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