Priorities For A Pandemic Session: Incoming House Speaker Jill Krowinski
The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on Vermonters is likely to dominate this year's biennium, which is set to begin this week. The new legislative session will open with a new slate of lawmakers poised to take over in leadership positions. That includes Rep. Jill Krowinski, of Burlington, who is slated to become the new Speaker of the House.
VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Rep. Jill Krowinski about her priorities as the session begins. Their interview is below and has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Henry Epp: COVID-19 is likely to dominate this session, as it did the last few months. The Legislature has allocated millions of dollars to Vermonters through a number of programs, many of them funded by federal relief money. What, in your view, is the immediate next step that the House needs to tackle in responding to the pandemic and its economic effects?
Jill Krowinski: Well, first, I think it's important to state that it's really important that we come together with a plan of action to beat the virus, and we need to lead a recovery for Vermont that leaves no one behind. What I'm hearing from people across this state are really the needs around access to broadband, access to affordable, high-quality childcare and housing. These were policy areas that we were working on before COVID hit, but when COVID came, it just made all of these things much more challenging and hard for Vermonters.
In terms of those priorities — broadband, childcare, housing — those could take significant funds to really tackle. Do you imagine that you'll be relying again on a lot of federal money, as the Legislature did in 2020?
I think that the federal funds are a key part of our recovery plan. I also think that we need to look at what we are prioritizing our very scarce resources in. We pumped billions of dollars into our economy, and I think it's really important to see what worked and what had great outcomes — and what didn't.
Beyond responding to the pandemic and its effects, are there any issues that you are really thinking of prioritizing? And do you feel like you have the time and ability to tackle issues that aren't directly related to the pandemic this session?
Well, I will say that governing remotely … it's just a longer process for us to work through. So, I want to be really thoughtful and strategic about what we are bringing to the virtual floor for a vote. And I think that we have some other really important issues to tackle [like] our Vermont State Colleges System.
Right now, I think it's critical that we have a strong higher education system in Vermont, and that's critical for our students and for our economic development in this state. So, I think that there is change coming in how we fund and organize the system of higher ed.
In terms of another priority of the Democrats, last session Gov. Scott vetoed paid family and medical leave. Do you plan to take that up again?
There's a lot of important priorities that now, with the Biden-Harris administration, I would like to see how they will be prioritizing paid family leave and if that's an issue they're going to take up. And that goes for a lot of other issues, too, like student debt, for example.
So, you'd potentially rather wait and see if paid family leave is tackled at the federal level rather than going forward at the state level?
I think we should be coordinating our work and not working on the same bills at the same time, given our very limited resources and structure, governing remotely right now.
I want to ask a little bit more about your position. You're set to become speaker after the previous speaker, Mitzi Johnson, narrowly lost her reelection race in November. How will you approach the speakership differently from Mitzi Johnson?
Well, I can't say that I'm going to be doing something specifically different because she did a wonderful job, and I really appreciate her leadership, especially during this COVID pandemic. What I’ll be focusing on is bringing people together.
One of the first things I want to do once I'm sworn in is start a listening tour across the state, to hear what's on Vermonters' minds. How are they doing during this recovery? What’s working for them and what's not working? And so, I think it's just really important that I take the speaker's office on the virtual road and hear from people across the state.
Your predecessor in this role, Mitzi Johnson, and former Senate President Tim Ashe, often butted heads as House Speaker and Senate President. Now, you and Sen. Becca Balint are coming into those roles. Do you already have a working relationship with Sen. Balint?
Yes, Sen. Balint and I have worked closely together for the last four years, [in my role] as majority leader. So we have worked really well together, getting through some really tough challenges and finding opportunities to work together.
You're also the executive director of Emerge Vermont, which recruits and trains female Democratic candidates to run for political office. And it's going to be an all-female leadership team in the Legislature. What's the significance to you, that Vermont will have a Senate and House led entirely by women?
I just think it's a wonderful opportunity to model to women and girls that we can be in any of these leadership roles and that there is a path for them to do that. One of the things I miss about being in the Statehouse is when we have the Girl Scouts come in or [ALA] Girls State come in. I love having them come up to the podium in the House chamber and look out across the seats to say, "this is something you could do," and just watching the look on their face. I just think it's a special moment for Vermont.
At the same time, Gov. Phil Scott comes into this session with a lot of popularity. He won 67% of the vote in November. Are there specific policies that you think you can work with the Republican governor on?
I think that Gov. Scott has done a great job guiding us through this COVID recovery, and I look forward to working with him. I know that there are disagreements that we may have on some policy areas, but, you know, what I'm hearing from Vermonters is that broadband, childcare and housing are really bubbling to the top of issues that they want us to focus and work on.
One other dynamic going into the session is that the Democrats and Progressives no longer have a supermajority in the House, which could make it more difficult in a situation where you'd want to override a veto from Gov. Scott, which has come up in recent years. Do you think that limits at all what you might be able to accomplish in this session?
I think it's really important that we're focusing on what we can pass and have become law together, as opposed to looking at numbers for veto overrides. Again, my priority is to come up with a plan to beat this virus, and it's going to be really important that we're all rowing in the same direction because that's what Vermonters need right now.
Clarification 4:35 p.m. 1/5/2021: This story's headline has been updated to reflect that Krowinski is poised to become the new Speaker of the House.
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