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As Fiscal Challenges Loom, Vermont Senate Acts Quickly On COVID-19 Measures

A person elbow bumping another person.
Mike Dougherty
Addison County Sen. Ruth Hardy elbow-bumps her way out of the Senate chamber in the Vermont Statehouse Tuesday, when state sentators reconvened for an emergency session.

Lawmakers returned to Montpelier Tuesday to face a much different world than the one they left on March 13.

The Senate was the first to act on a series of relief measures designed to help those affected by COVID-19. Senators passed a bill to expand unemployment benefits, another to give health care providers flexibility from regulations, and a third to allow town bodies to meet and vote remotely.

The full text of the bills can be found in Tuesday's Senate Journal.

Only 17 senators attended their session, one more than needed for a simple majority in the 30-person chamber. They spread themselves out around the ornate chamber, each maintaining the requisite six feet of space for social distancing.

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Outside the chamber, instead of a noisy Statehouse crowded with lobbyists, school kids on tours and journalists angling for an exclusive, the halls were silent, the public banned, and media access allowed but limited.

Franklin County Republican Sen. Randy Brock set both an apolitical and somber tone in his comments before the formal Senate came into session.

"In Vermont, in this body, over the past two weeks, we've seen what makes the American political system historically the envy of the world." — Franklin County Sen. Randy Brock

“In times like these, we see the true colors of character,” he said. “The contrast sometimes could not be clearer. You know, in parts of our country, we see continued political posturing and partisan divide. But here in Vermont, in this body, over the past two weeks, we’ve seen what makes the American political system historically the envy of the world.”

The Senate’s work had been choreographed in advance in a series of conference calls. So without debate, they quickly passed resolutions allowing remote voting by committees. They then moved on to pass the unemployment bill, and after that, legislation allowing health care providers to be reimbursed for telemedicine consultations and to hire nurses from other states without going through the Vermont licensing process.

“This is all designed to try to expand what we do through telehealth, to expand our capabilities during this time,” said Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman. “And also, to allow some people from out-of-state … to help us through this time."

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The health care bill also enables the Green Mountain Care Board, which regulates hospitals, to waive certain permit requirements if hospitals need to act quickly to build surge centers to treat a sudden influx of patients.

A third bill changes the state’s open meetings and elections laws to reduce potential public exposure to the new coronavirus. One provision allows town selectboards to meet and vote remotely, without a physical place for the public to join in as is now required. A second section allows candidates to run for office without gathering the requisite number of signatures physically on a petition.

The measures now move to the House. But Senate President Tim Ashe said lawmakers are only just beginning to address the crisis, and the actions Tuesday were just the first step.

"The heavy lifting is all in front of us, and it's going to require our patience, a lot of flexibility, and a lot of hard work moving forward." — Senate President Tim Ashe

“We have some important things to be immediately responsive with the facts that we have right now,” he said. “The heavy lifting is all in front of us, and it’s going to require our patience, a lot of flexibility, and a lot of hard work moving forward.”

One huge looming challenge is the state’s fiscal situation. The Legislature’s analysts project Vermont will face a $100 million revenue loss over the next three months.

Ashe said that number could double, because the state Tax Department has allowed businesses to defer rooms and meals tax payments.

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“If all the people delayed the submission of those payments until after July 1, it would be about $120 million. That's the initial estimate for this fiscal year,” he said. “That's what's so staggering about the sudden decline of revenues.”

Ashe said senators and the public should brace for more bad news.

“The news about sickness and death in the days ahead might get very, very dark," he said. "We are going to have to be extremely resilient in the days ahead to face some of the news we’re going to hear from the community.”

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