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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Reporter Debrief: The Legislature's 2021 Opening Day Was Weird, Quiet, With Focus On 'Possible-ism'

Two men in masks walk past the granite columns of the statehouse
Elodie Reed
/
VPR
Bennington Sen. Brian Campion, left, and Essex-Orleans Sen. Robert Starr, right, head for the loading dock entrance to the Statehouse on Jan. 6, the opening day for the 2021 legislative session. Other entrances were closed as a COVID-19 precaution.

Today marks the first day of the new legislative session in Vermont, and outgoing Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman gaveled in the Senate for an in-person floor session this morning.

But this will be the first and possibly last time that lawmakers will legislate in person in 2021. The rest of the session is set to be conducted remotely due to COVID-19 safety concerns.

VPR’s Henry Epp and Peter Hirschfeld spoke about this historic first day for the Legislature. Their conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Henry Epp: So Pete, you've been covering the Legislature for about a decade now. So how did the proceedings compare to opening days that you've covered in the past?

Peter Hirschfeld: It was different in some really weird and really sad ways sometimes.

And it started from the moment that you walk up to the Statehouse to enter the building itself. They had limited inbound traffic to just one entrance near the back of the Statehouse where I found a Capitol Police officer and deputy sergeant at arms that were there to greet me and other folks as they walked into the building. I had to stand in front of the “scanitizer” until I got a green light, and sign in.  

A thermal screen with three people in it
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Anyone who entered the Statehouse for the first and perhaps last in-person session on Wednesday had to get screened by the scanitizer.

And the thing that immediately struck me as I walked into the Statehouse itself was the near total silence inside. I spent a few minutes walking down hallways. I went up to the cafeteria. Keep in mind, this is a building that would usually – at 10:00 a.m. on the opening day of the legislative session – be buzzing and alive and just crammed with people. And today I walked around for probably three minutes before I encountered another human being.

I have to say the legislative leaders and the sergeant at arms were incredibly accommodating to reporters today, but there were a lot of restrictions about where we could and could not go due to concerns about people's ability to physically distance in some of the more cramped corners of the Statehouse. There was this funny moment when a couple of reporters tried to negotiate access to the Senate balcony, which was off-limits, with a Capitol police officer named Sara Pearson.

So, I mean … there was this mix of dead seriousness about the dangers that accompany this sort of rare, frankly, in-person gathering right now, but also glimmers of the collegiality and excitement that often accompany the opening day of a legislative session.

Deer prints in snow
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Deer tracks outnumbered footprints in the snow outside the Statehouse on Wednesday.

The House and Senate don't have any immediate plans to return to the Statehouse this year, which means that elected officials are going to be conducting all of their business entirely over Zoom. Are there any concerns about what impact that's going to have on the actual legislative process?

This concept of working remotely isn't entirely new for lawmakers, right? They've been legislating almost exclusively via Zoom since March, but this is the first time that a new legislature will have to do its work virtually.

I talked to Addison County Sen. Chris Bray. He's been in the building for more than a decade now, first as a representative, now as a senator. He says he's feeling really confident about committees’ ability to meet remotely, to take testimony, to hold votes and so forth. What Chris Bray is worried about is March and April and May, which is when lawmakers from different committees in the House and Senate are going to have to figure out how to fit together some complex pieces of incredibly complicated and consequential bills.

“You're not going in, coming into the floor,” Bray said. “You're not chatting with each other, you're not having breakfast, lunch or dinner with people. And that to me, is like the glue of things. Like, you talk about a lot of things that help make the work cohere and move when you see each other in person.”

The glue that Chris Bray talks about there is a really important thing, when you're trying to reconcile the competing viewpoints of 180 legislators that serve in that building. And it's going to be a lot more difficult to get that glue to cure without the social benefits of sharing a physical space.

People in masks in a room with a green carpet
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Senators are sworn in by outgoing Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman on Wednesday in a spaced-out Senate chamber.

Pete, Burlington Rep. Jill Krowinski was sworn in today as Speaker of the House. Windham County Sen. Becca Balint was officially elected by her colleagues as the Senate President Pro Tem. These are new leaders in both of those chambers. So what message did they have for lawmakers today?

During Jill Krowinski’s speech, she actually gave the session a name. She said it's going to be the “coronavirus recovery session.” And it's clear from conversations that I've had today and over the past few weeks that lawmakers of all political stripes are squarely focused on addressing the impacts, financial and otherwise, of the pandemic on Vermonters.

More from VPR: Priorities In A Pandemic Session: Incoming House Speaker Jill Krowinski

Jill Krowinski and Becca Balint have each made it clear that broadband and child care are going to be at the top of that agenda. Now, those two issues, child care and broadband, are incredibly complicated, incredibly expensive undertakings that have eluded lawmakers in the past, at least when it comes to making anything more than incremental change.

A woman in mask through a window
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint as seen through Statehouse windows on the first day of the 2021 legislative session.

But during Becca Balint’s speech today, she asked her colleagues to approach this year's work with a sense of what she called “possible-ism.” She said lawmakers in the past have rightly felt constrained by fiscal limitations. But she says this moment we find ourselves in right now is going to require lawmakers to think bigger than most of them may be accustomed to.

“And I really want us to realize, that although we may be still very much in the dark about how we can make a child care system that works for all, or how we might be able to build out broadband, I want to start from a place of possibility, that the important thing for us is to do better,” Balint said.

More from VPR: Priorities For A Pandemic Session: Incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint

And I'll add this, Henry. The results in Georgia yesterday are lending to that sense of possibility. A lot of legislative leaders in Montpelier think that Democratic control of both houses of Congress is going to result in enormous federal allocations to states in response to the pandemic. And a lot of them feel like they may finally have the financial wherewithal to pursue the kind of transformative policy initiatives that just weren't possible during leaner budget years.

Now sort of the ceremonial stuff for the Legislature is done. So what comes next?

There's going to be a lot of lawmakers getting to know each other on the new committees they're serving on. There's going to be a lot of orientation in terms of lawmakers boning up on issues, getting to know some of the administrative officials that they're going to be dealing with.

A sign saying the statehouse is closed
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Vermont lawmakers will continue the 2021 legislative session by meeting remotely.

There is one piece of legislation that is going to be moving very quickly that relates to Town Meeting Day and giving municipalities the ability to either delay Town Meeting Day votes or to opt for mail-in balloting for those votes. So that's one bill that will be moving quickly. Otherwise, expect lawmakers to do a bit of acclimating and learning before we see any big bills hit the floor.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporters Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld and Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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