Lawmakers plan to return to the Vermont Statehouse next week to act quickly – and safely – on legislation designed to help the state recover from the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus.
Before lawmakers adjourned on March 13, the House passed a bill that would expand eligibility for unemployment benefits to people who lost their jobs because of the virus. This would cover waiters or waitresses laid off because their restaurants closed.
The Senate plans to take up that measure as soon as lawmakers return on Tuesday, according to Senate President Tim Ashe.
“That is one that the [Scott] administration believes requires legislative action," he said. "It cannot be done through executive order or administrative action."
Senate Economic Development Committee Chair Michael Sirotkin said the unemployment insurance bill may be broadened as well to cover more people who can’t work because of the COVID-19 impacts.
“We’re working with the House to come up with solutions to address things the House bill did not address because circumstances have changed so drastically last week,” Sirotkin said. “For instance, the House bill has nothing to take care of people who had to leave their jobs to take care of their kids because of school closures.”
Sirotkin said that his committee and his House counterparts are working on language both can agree on quickly next week.
Indeed, speed and consensus seem to be the operative mode for Statehouse leaders as they grapple both with the work at hand and how to conduct legislative business in a new world of social distancing.
The state Constitution requires lawmakers to be present to vote. The 30-member Senate is weighing the best way to do that and keep everyone healthy. The ideas include having just 16 members present to vote – if the bills appear to enjoy unanimous support – to having senators separated around the Statehouse as they vote in order to maintain social distance.
The House will likely return Tuesday or Wednesday. But exactly how the 150 members will gather and vote is still to be determined, since Gov. Phil Scott’s emergency order prohibits public gatherings of 50 or more.
The Statehouse building is closed to the public until Tuesday. Lawmakers are considering restricting access to the public – and the media – when the Legislature reconvenes next week.
“I believe you have the ability, under the Constitution, to say the health and welfare of the state allows you to close the chamber,” John Bloomer, the senate parliamentarian, told senators Friday. “I believe that the security or the [Capitol Police] chief would be recommending that you not allow the public in for these [proceedings].”
Bloomer said the Senate would need to pass a resolution to close its doors to the public and press, provided that “that there is some sort of alternatives so that people could listen the same way they could as if they were sitting in the balcony here.”
VPR.org carries a livestream of House and Senate proceedings.
House and Senate leaders also conferred with members of the media Friday about limiting the number of reporters, photographers and videographers on hand for next week’s sessions.
Beyond the logistics of how to vote and how to guarantee public access, the fiscal challenges posed by COVID-19 loom large for lawmakers. Senate President Tim Ashe said that Vermont is looking at a $100 million shortfall in fiscal year 2020.
How to make up for that shortfall in the remaining three months of the fiscal year is just one of many unanswered questions the Legislature will confront in the weeks ahead.