3.27.2020 – The Legislature’s Response to COVID-19
It’s been another week of interesting developments. I hope you are all adjusting to staying at home unless you really need to go out. The news from places like Italy, New York City, and New Orleans is frightening and the goal is to take precautions to avoid those kinds of situations here in Vermont.
I have heard from a number of constituents expressing fear that out-of-staters are bringing COVID-19 to our state and that Governor Scott should close the borders. To be clear, he does not have the authority to do that. It would take action on the federal level for something like that to occur. I have also heard that some of the folks who have come from elsewhere are not following the directive to self-quarantine for fourteen days. That is unfortunate because we are all in this together and I’d like to think that we are all looking out for one another and respecting the guidelines set out by our state leaders. I can only imagine how COVID-19 refugees feel, they must be very frightened. I think it’s incumbent on us as Vermonters to remain calm, follow the guidelines set out for us, and encourage others who might not be following them to do so.
While many of the people who have been laid off from work have applied for Unemployment Insurance, I’ve had questions regarding help for those who are self-employed, and there are many. The federal Stimulus Package that was signed recently by the President will bring relief to the self-employed, though we don’t know the details at this time.
I recently received the following: “Do you know someone who needs health insurance during this crisis? Uninsured Vermonters can sign up for Vermont Health Connect until April 17, no matter how long you’ve been uninsured. Apply now by calling Vermont Health Connect at 1-855-899-9600. For free help, call the Health Care Advocate at 1-800-917-7787 or visit us online at: https://vtlawhelp.org/vhc-coronavirus.” The goal is to get as many people covered with health insurance so that they get the care they need when they need it.
This week, the Legislature passed a number of bills and resolutions to help cope with the realities of COVID-19. House Resolution 18 amends House Rules to “allow remote participation while the House’s Declaration of a State of Emergency is in effect.” It then goes on to lay out the parameters by which remote participation in State House activities may occur, how members are validated, and how debates and votes are conducted. It also determines when the Rule will expire, which is “at the convening of the 2021 biennial session or the expiration of the House’s Declaration of Emergency in response to COVID-19 and any extension of this declaration by a Joint Resolution or a House Resolution.”
This provision, as well as the other bills passed on Wednesday, were carefully crafted by Speaker Mitzi Johnson and a multi-partisan group of legislators. Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, Progressive Leader Robin Chestnut-Tangerman, and Independent members all collaborated to bring forth the bills that were ultimately approved. It was hoped that a minimal number of legislators would need to be present to pass these bills in order to cut down on the risk of exposure to COVID-19. When I’m sitting on the Floor of the House, my seatmate, Rep. Maine Grad, is two feet away from me.
This, unfortunately, was not to be when Rep. Cynthia Browning, a Democrat from Arlington repeatedly asked if there was a quorum present. To be clear, it is assumed there is a quorum present unless the question is asked. For the sake of public health, the Speaker had hoped, and had tacit agreement from other party leadership, that this would not be an issue. While I’ve heard Rep. Browning offer different reasons for raising it, the bottom line was that the vast majority of the people represented by their leadership on Wednesday were in full support of the resolution and bills that were being offered and needed to be passed so that we can continue our work on behalf of Vermonters.
When Rep. Browning insisted, the word went out that legislators would have to drive to Montpelier from all corners of Vermont in order to continue with the work that had so carefully been laid out. The call was answered, and I want to thank all of the folks who at a moment’s notice, hopped in their cars and drove to Montpelier, unnecessarily exposing themselves to germs from all over the state.
I was not aware of all of this because I was in my workroom sewing surgical masks for our medical workers. By the time I learned of it and called to see if I was still needed, thankfully enough people had already shown up. As a person in the at-risk age group, I especially appreciate those who made the trip.
An additional note here is this – had Rep. Browning notified leadership that she was going to do this, plans could have been made to avoid the mess that ensued. If her goal was to get the Speaker to back away from the provisions included in any of the bills and resolutions that were passed that day, she was sorely mistaken. As mentioned earlier, there was strong multi-partisan support for all of it and she was not going to stop it. This is not the first time Rep. Browning has challenged leadership, but it may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Rep. Browning was removed from the Ways and Means Committee and replaced with Windham County’s own, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser.
There has been a lot of interest in some of the elections and open meeting provisions included in H.681. Regarding the Open Meeting Law, the following applies, “It is the intent of the General Assembly that during the continued spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the State of Vermont public bodies should organize and hold open meetings in a manner that will protect the health and welfare of the public while providing access to the operations of government. Public bodies should meet electronically and provide the public with electronic access to meetings in lieu of a designated physical location.” What is laid out in law includes the following: “(1) a quorum or more of the members of a public body may attend a regular, special, or emergency meeting by electronic or other means without being physically present at a designated meeting location; (2) the public body shall not be required to designate a physical meeting location where the public may attend; and (3) the members and staff of the public body shall not be required to be physically present at a designated meeting location.”
In order to assure that the public has access, the public body must use technology that permits attendance through electronic or other means like telephones when possible. Information on how the public may access meetings must be posted including the published agenda. Every effort should be made to record meetings unless unusual circumstances make it impossible. The deadline to post minutes is extended to ten days in the event of a staffing shortage during a declared state of emergency. The full text of the Journal for Wednesday, March 25 can be found at https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/Docs/JOURNAL/hj200325.pdf