The Vermont House first had to overcome a procedural challenge before voting Wednesday on legislation designed to address the COVID-19 crisis.
House and Senate leaders had worked out a strategy in advance to move bills and resolutions related to COVID-19 quickly through both chambers, with as few people in the Statehouse as possible, to avoid the spread of coronavirus.
One bill extends unemployment benefits to workers who lost their jobs as businesses shuttered. Another makes it easier for health care providers to use telemedicine and to hire workers from out of state.
Separate legislation and resolutions allow for remote voting by the Legislature and its committees. The Senate approved the measures Tuesday. But the House's carefully choreographed plan to quickly follow suit was derailed for hours by Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. She repeatedly halted the proceedings by calling for a quorum – or voting majority – of the 150 members.
Under normal circumstances, a quorum is assumed unless a challenge is raised from the floor. That's what Browning did several times.
“I did this because I find one of the three resolutions with which we began proceedings to be logically incorrect and to undermine the democratic operations of the House,” Browning said in an email. “The third resolution has to be approved by three quarters of those members who vote remotely on it eventually. So in that third resolution House leadership is asking for approval of remote voting with remote voting. … This is circular reasoning – a tautology.”
At Browning’s first quorum call, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson recessed the session with a resounding whack of her gavel, clearly displeased by the delay.
“This is principle over public health. And to me, the safety of Vermonters is of paramount importance here,” she told reporters during a recess.
Johnson emailed House members and dozens of them drove to Montpelier to answer the quorum call.
“Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Independents have worked incredibly hard to come up with a way so that we could honor the Democratic process... while protecting public health,” she said. “And the quorum call jeopardizes that piece of public health. So we are doing our best to accommodate that.”
By late afternoon, the required 76 members were present and they quickly approved the bills and resolutions.
Johnson said the process that Browning objected to was discussed repeatedly in Rules Committee meetings over the past week and should not have come as a surprise.
She said the remote voting issue was especially important given the scale of the pandemic and the likelihood that the Legislature will need to take more action to help the state.
“Until we deal with how to vote remotely, we will have no way of addressing a future challenge,” she said. “We have to pass a resolution that allows the Legislature to do its work for Vermonters to respond to this crisis in a way that doesn’t further endanger people.”