By Rep. Jim Harrison
Legislating via Zoom has pluses and minuses. It has enabled the Legislature to meet virtually in a safe manner and get necessary work done. Of course, what is necessary is in the eyes of the beholder.
On the other hand, it has definite limitations on developing dialogs and understandings between individual lawmakers and those testifying . There is less opportunity to have frank conversations off record to see if it is possible to bridge differences or better understand the issue at hand.
But there is more transparency. All committee meetings are streamed on YouTube and part of a permanent record for viewing anytime/anywhere. Members of the public, press and anyone else can tune in. And that is all good.
However, if you are like me and have been on Zoom meetings for eight or more hours, you might just get the urge to yawn a couple of times. That can easily be taken out of context and look like you are not engaged in what the testimony is at that moment. Or, a legislator could mistakenly unmute and say something you wouldn’t say in public. It happens, especially when the computer or connection has issues, or one spills coffee.
Last week, the Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling got into an exchange with Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Essex, about the training of law enforcement on the use of force. Vyhovsky contended that more needed to be done on de-escalation tactics, which the commissioner says is happening and the reason most incidents result in zero violence. Later in the meeting, Schirling referred to the exchange as “uppity” which Vyhovsky and others took issue with and immediately began tweeting about the insensitive use of his choice of words. The commissioner, once realizing some took offense, apologized.
In another meeting, a colleague asked the director of racial equality whether there was systemic racism (as the director has indicated) in Vermont’s health care system or whether there may be some individuals who were racist. Posing a question trying to understand the difference then ends up becoming a story for the media.
So, if one is concerned about the microscope we operate under, then one might be tempted to not ask questions, lest they be taken wrong. But then we don’t learn anything.
On to the issues:
The Senate Health & Welfare Committee is reviewing legislation, S.24, to ban the sale of flavored (including menthol) tobacco and vape products in Vermont. It is believed that the flavoring may be more attractive to younger users.
It appears legislation making changes to how education health care benefits are negotiated is on a fast track to passage. The bill, H.81, removes a requirement from the law approved a couple of years ago, that the participating employee premium co-pays are the same. The removal of that provision is supported by the unions and opposed by school boards and the Scott administration, who fear additional cost pressures to school budgets and property taxes.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill, S.18, that would limit earned “good time” sentence reductions for criminal offenders who have been previously convicted of major crimes.
The administration’s budget calls for an additional $1 million in marketing funding on top of the usual $3 million, to help jumpstart the tourism sector. It is estimated that overall visitor spending is down by close to $700 million because of the pandemic.
The House Human Services Committee is reviewing H.171, which would ensure no Vermont family pays more than 10% of their income on childcare by 2026. While the legislation enjoys a lot of support, the potential price tag of over $300 million could doom its fate.
The House Energy and Technology Committee has spent the last several weeks working on legislation that focuses on broadband deployment throughout Vermont. The effort will attempt to maximize the use of some one-time funding that has been identified by the Scott administration.
Following the issues with the mailing of 1099 forms by the Dept.of Labor, at least one committee had discussions of creating a new chief privacy officer position for the state.
In closing, I hope to see you at one of the informational online town meetings:
Bridgewater, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m.
Chittenden, March 1 at 7 p.m.
Killington, March 1 at 7 p.m.
Mendon, March 1 at 6 p.m.
Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected]