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Why The Governor's Inaugural Address Is Thursday Night, And Other Questions To 'Ask Bob'

The House Chamber, pictured above in 2019, will remain mostly empty for the foreseeable future of the 2021 legislative session
Matthew Smith
VPR file
The House Chamber, pictured above in 2019, will remain mostly empty for the foreseeable future of the 2021 legislative session. "Ask Bob" explains what to expect on a usually ceremonial second day of session.

The second day of the new legislative session is traditionally the biggest ceremonial day in the Statehouse, a time when officials are sworn into office and a joint session of the legislature packs into the House chamber for the Governor’s inaugural address. But the pandemic means this new session is anything but traditional. In the latest Ask Bob, VPR's senior political reporter Bob Kinzel answers questions about how the pomp and circumstance is being adapted amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What are some of the key decisions already made as this session gets underway?

Because of the health and safety concerns surrounding the pandemic, it was decided last month that lawmakers would meet remotely for the first few months of this session. The 150-member House was going to use the Barre Auditorium for the official events of the first week, but then decided against the idea for safety reasons.

Now the House will conduct all of its business at the start of the session using remote technology. Over in the Senate, with only 30 members, it was decided they’d use the Senate chamber for the first few days of the session, by limiting how many senators could be in the chamber at any one time.

Starting next week, the Senate will also meet using remote technology. Lawmakers met remotely last summer and early fall and showed they could make it work, but there's no question that it's very, very different.

How is the swearing in of statewide officials, like the the attorney general, treasurer, and lieutenant governor, being handled this year?

Weather permitting, some events will be held outdoors on the portico of the Statehouse.

The exception is the swearing in of the state's new lieutenant governor, Democrat Molly Gray. She’s scheduled to take the oath of office Thursday morning in the Senate chamber, with a very limited number of people in attendance.

On Thursday afternoon on the portico, Gov. Phil Scott will be sworn into office, along with the other statewide officials.

My guess is that someone like the Chief Justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, Paul Reiber, might administer the oath of office to the governor, and then the governor will turn around and swear in the other four statewide officials. It's quite a change from tradition designed to keep everybody safe.

The inaugural address is one of the big events on the second day of the session. What's happening this year?

There’s actually going to be two gubernatorial speeches today.

Usually, the Governor delivers an inaugural address in front of a joint session of the Legislature at around 2 p.m. And as you mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of ceremony involved. But this year, because of the huge impact of the pandemic, Gov. Scott decided he really wanted to give this speech at night, so that more people could hear his message.

At the same time, legislative leaders wanted to hear from the governor — as is their tradition — so they asked him to deliver some “welcoming remarks” to a remote joint session at 2 p.m., and then at 7 p.m., he'll give his inaugural address once again, using remote technology. 

It took a little ironing out. The House Rules Committee was very unenthusiastic about having the governor deliver his inaugural address in the House chamber in the evening. I think they felt it was inappropriate to break from tradition in order to allow the governor to deliver what is often viewed as a somewhat political speech. And remember: it's a speech where the governor is “invited” to speak in the House chamber.

But Gov. Scott felt very strongly that, with the pandemic still a major issue, he's giving this address under very different circumstances this year, and that the tenor and tone of the speech is linked to these circumstances. So, it was agreed he'd give his inaugural address this evening using a remote studio in the pavilion office building, just down the street from the Statehouse. At the same time, legislative leaders felt it was important to hear directly from the governor this afternoon. So it was decided he would offer them some general opening remarks about the session, using remote technology.

Will lawmakers return to the Statehouse for any part of the 2021 session?

If legislative leaders decide to hold a traditional session, and pass a budget and adjourn by the middle of May, then the answer is: no, they will not come back to the Statehouse. 

But here's one scenario where they may return: A lot of the key decisions affecting the state budget for the 2022 fiscal year will hinge on whether or not there's another Congressional stimulus package this winter. If there is, when will it pass? I could see a scenario where lawmakers pass an interim budget in April, and then go home, pending the outcome of the federal stimulus package. But if that stimulus package passes in February or March or early April, this step wouldn't be needed.

It's a huge question mark, but my guess, if I had to bet on it right now, is they will not return to the Statehouse for the 2021 session.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet reporter Bob Kinzel @VPRKinzel.

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