By Rep. Jim Harrison
Over the past few weeks, we have seen addendum after addendum to Governor Phil Scott’s Emergency Declaration that was issued on March 13. What was allowed yesterday may not be true today. The situation is changing daily. Last week saw the governor issuing orders to stay home, close non-essential businesses, including lodging and short term rentals, and extend the school closures. On Monday, March 30, the governor’s order directs residents and non-residents coming from outside the state for anything other than an essential purpose to home-quarantine for 14 days.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything that we have lived through. And while it is our hope that the measures put in place will soon be unnecessary, the reality is that we don’t know the timetable ahead of us.
The Legislature is also in uncharted territory. Back on March 13, lawmakers adjourned for 10 days. When it became clear we couldn’t do business under the dome in the normal sense, committees began meeting via conference calls and now through video platforms.
Discussions on bills dealing with the pandemic that passed the House on the 13th, continued in the Senate remotely. Senators returned to the State House with barely a quorum to approve changes to the House version. The House, with 150 members, was a little more problematic with the need for social distancing.
New rules were drawn up with leaders of all parties and independents to allow for remote voting during the emergency. A plan to reconvene the House on Wednesday, March 25, with a small number of members present to adopt the rules backfired when Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, questioned if a quorum was present (it was not), which effectively stopped any business from taking place. (Under our rules, quorums are assumed unless questioned.) Urgent calls for House members to return to the State House were made and some 80-90 of us got in our cars immediately and headed to Montpelier. The new rules and emergency bills were passed in short order.
As part of a test group for remote voting, I can tell you the technology certainly works, but will take some time before it goes smoothly for all. As for the video platform, the good news is that committee meetings can be streamed on YouTube, allowing for more transparency. However, it also is a bit more cumbersome to have an open discussion about various bills, especially if there is any controversy. Debating or asking questions on bills with 150 House members remotely could be challenging.
Going forward during this emergency period may require that bills not dealing with the COVID-19 crisis and the various state budgets may have to take a backseat, especially if they require new funding or new responsibilities from various agencies. That didn’t stop the House Government Operations Committee from advancing a bill on campaign financing for the 2022 elections last week. So what is important and timely may still be in the eyes of the beholder.
More controversial measures, like a bill imposing new firearm restrictions, will be put on hold for now according to House Speaker Johnson. What is less clear is the fate of significant measures relating to climate change, amendments to Vermont’s Act 250 law and the regulation of cannabis among others.
The Legislature approved and sent to the Governor two bills last week dealing with various COVID-19 related measures:
H.742 – Allows certain health agencies to waive or modify certain regulatory requirements for flexibility in staffing; directs the state to consider measures to expand health insurance coverage; allows pharmacies to extend maintenance prescriptions; allows relicensing of retired health care professionals; expands insurance coverage for telemedicine; and allows the Commissioner for Children and Families to use additional funds for child care assistance.
H.742 also contained changes to Vermont’s unemployment program, including waiving of the one week delay for COVID-19 UI claims; and alleviates employer experience rating due to increases in certain situations where employees were laid off or needed to leave their jobs due to COVID-19.
H.681 — allows electronic and remote meetings during the emergency for public bodies; allows changes to our 2020 elections, including potential for mail in balloting; flexibility on municipal deadlines; and allows the Department of Fish & Wildlife to conduct its area meetings remotely while reducing the number of them.
Meanwhile, emergency federal legislation has been enacted that promises help to individuals as well as businesses. Several links are listed under my resource section below and/or you can reach out to our Congressional delegation (Rep. Welch, Senators Leahy and Sanders) for more details.
We may have to continue to adjust some of the rules as we proceed, but we will get through this and hopefully soon! Stay safe and healthy. To quote President Lincoln, “Let us hope that these times that we are now facing will appeal to the better angels of our nature.”
For a touch of humor on our current stay home situation enjoy this YouTube video.
Congratulations are in order to David Fox, whom the governor appointed to become Rutland County sheriff, replacing retiring Sheriff Stephen Benard. Fox has been a member of the sheriff’s office since graduating from the Vermont Police Academy in 2004.
Call 211 (the Vermont 211 database) for Covid-19 assistance or visit: healthvermont.gov/covid19
Vermont Executive Orders: governor.vermont.gov/document-types/executive-orders
Health Connect: Uninsured Vermonters can sign up for Vermont Health Connect until April 17, no matter how long you’ve been uninsured. Apply by calling 1-855-899-9600. For free help, call 1-800-917-7787 or visit: vtlawhelp.org/vhc-coronavirus
Unemployment information: labor.vermont.gov
New tax deadlines: tax.vermont.gov/coronavirus
Resources for businesses: accd.vermont.gov/covid-19-guidance
Public Wi-Fi map and information on access in Vermont: publicservice.vermont.gov/content/public-wifi-hotspots-vermont