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With rising COVID-19 cases in Vermont and the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant, the Vermont Legislature started the 2022 session Tuesday with the House voting to work remotely for the first two weeks after the Senate had previously voted to do so.
Masked House members met in person briefly in the Statehouse in the morning to approve that and some other procedural resolutions while much of the Senate attended its opening session virtually.
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A legislative panel had recommended that the Legislature start the session remotely for two weeks and then reassess to determine whether it will be safe to resume in-person meetings. But some Republican members of the Democrat-controlled House on Tuesday spoke out against the move and some said the remote time frame needs to be short in order to get important work done.
“I am grateful for all of the work that this body has done during this pandemic to maintain the safety of Vermont, but this resolution smacks of disrespect and misused privilege,” said Rep. Felisha Leffler, a Republican from Enosburgh. “This body is with this resolution implying that we are more important than every other Vermonter whose at work and at school right now.”
Rep. Jim Harrison, a Republican from Chittenden, said there are many reasons why meeting in person leads to better legislation and said working remotely is not ideal and can come with distractions. He said he wants to get back to an in-person session as soon as possible but would support the resolution to go remote for the first two weeks, a time when he said the Legislature typically doesn’t pass a lot of measures.
“It’s for two weeks. We’re going to revisit and my support in two weeks may change unless the sky has fallen,” he said.
The number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont rose 128% in the past week during the holiday surge, according to state data released Tuesday. The seven-day hospitalization average from the illness rose 17% during that time period, according to the data.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski said that she knows that starting remotely is disappointing to many but that it will not deter lawmakers from doing important work.
She said her priority is to work with the Senate and governor to help boost the economic recovery; tackle housing, child care and workforce challenges; enact inclusive measures to combat climate change and build a resilient future; and work to ensure that legislation that passes has been reviewed to make sure it “creates greater equity for all Vermonters.”
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, a Democrat who is also running to occupy the state’s lone U.S. House seat, said her top priority is making the most of the federal stimulus dollars “to improve the lives of working families.”
That means investments and policy support in pandemic response; addressing the housing crisis and the workforce shortage; protecting the climate and the planet; accountability in the criminal justice system; supporting teachers, public employees and their pensions; and enshrining reproductive rights in the state Constitution, she said.
On Wednesday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott will outline his priorities for the legislative session and talk about the previous year during his State of the State address, which will be streamed online. The full Senate is expected to reconvene Wednesday and the House on Friday.