The Vermont Senate on Tuesday passed a series of measures designed to help the state respond to the COVID-19 outbreak that is sweeping the state and the nation.
The legislation would make sure anyone who loses their job or has to leave one to care for someone who is ill will be eligible for unemployment benefits, that state and local elections can go forward later in the year and it temporarily modifies the state's open meeting laws so local government can function remotely.
The package, all passed unanimously on voice votes by 17 members of the 30-member chamber, also helps hospitals financially and gives people extra time to renew drivers' licenses or register their vehicles. It even makes provisions to allow people to have their wills notarized by video.
Near the close of the Tuesday morning session, Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington, told lawmakers it is a cliche to say that the first role of government is to keep people safe. But now the state and the country is focusing on a threat to the lives of millions amid a crisis that is costing the economy untold millions of dollars.
“Protecting public life is going to require a lot of resilience and then rebuilding this economy is going to be absolutely imperative because things are so bad right now,” Ashe said during the session that had one more member present than the 16 senators required for a quorum.
Lawmakers in both the Vermont Senate and the House have been looking for ways to pass legislation at a time when social distancing is the norm and the governor has banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
On Wednesday, a handful of House leaders are expected to hold a session to pass the measures approved by the Senate on Tuesday. As planned the session will not have the required 76 members needed for a quorum, which can work as long as none of the members ask for a quorum call.
If someone does, the session could not go forward.
“'That’s the risk," said Katherine Levasseur, the chief of staff to Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson.
Committees from the House and Senate are now beginning to meet remotely while lawmakers look into ways for the full chambers to conduct their business remotely.
The House is testing a couple of options, but no decisions have been made on how those would work, Levasseur said.
“That is what is being sorted out in this crux of parliamentary needs in this crisis we are in," she said.
Going forward it's unclear how the Legislature will deal with issues such as the must-pass state budget. But that can't be finished until lawmakers know the depth of the financial hole the coronavirus is digging for the state right now and what federal aid will be coming.
"Right now there is so much unknown the idea of passing a budget in a week and leaving is ridiculous,"' Ashe said. “We could write a budget right now it would be irrelevant one hour from now.”