On Jan. 5, lawmakers began their work like many Vermonters: remotely. Moving to a virtual legislative session that relies on Zoom to host meetings and hearings, and YouTube to broadcast them, was the best decision legislative leaders could make to protect the health and safety of Vermonters.
However, as we have learned with remote learning and our children, virtual meetings are no substitute for the critical in-person collaboration and data collection our lawmakers need to craft quality policies. In an ordinary legislative session, lawmakers would introduce thousands of bills, and they would pass hundreds of them.
As we saw last year, holding remote legislative sessions was challenging for everyone — the public and advocates, administration officials and lawmakers. This session will be no different. This is why the Associated General Contractors of Vermont joined with 21 other organizations, employing thousands of Vermonters, to encourage lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott to narrow their legislative priorities and to only pass bills in three key areas necessary to combat the COVID-19 crisis.
The three key areas include:
1. Health recovery — We need to rapidly distribute the COVID-19 vaccine starting where it will make the biggest impacts for the vulnerable and those working in the public. Also, we need to quickly identify locations and volunteers to distribute the vaccine as it becomes readily available. We need to make sure our hospitals are safe and secure with adequate capacity. We need to be prepared for long-term effects of this disease.
2. Economic recovery — COVID-19 has already caused some businesses to permanently close, and many businesses are on the verge. Businesses will need help weathering this crisis. A good example of economic recovery is avoiding cost shocks such as the scheduled rate increases to unemployment insurance premiums. The Legislature has the opportunity and power to avoid this cost shock and others that could severely harm more of our local businesses and employers.
3. Must-pass legislation — Every legislative session, certain bills and budgets must be passed by the Legislature, which authorizes state government to continue operating. This includes existing state health and human services, maintenance of buildings and infrastructure, environmental management programs, and protections for our most vulnerable citizens.
We are not asking advocates and leaders to walk away from their priorities, but rather to pause “business as usual,” so we can ensure quality legislation gets passed that allows us to respond to this crisis while positioning Vermont for a better future.
Policies to improve education, health care, the environment and even the construction industry, will be impossible to achieve unless we ensure Vermont has strong health recovery, an economic recovery, and that the basic operation of state government continues.
We are fortunate to live in a state where our elected leaders and state officials have worked together on this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Since March and the pandemic began, they have crafted sound policies and passed important legislation that has helped protect the most vulnerable and at-risk Vermonters from economic hardship caused by record unemployment. They have protected the health and safety of our citizens, and they have distributed millions of dollars to Vermont businesses teetering on the brink of closure.
Conducting legislative business virtually this session will be challenging enough for everyone. By directing our combined energy, efforts and ideas toward passing bills aimed at a health recovery, an economic recovery and on continuing state operations, lawmakers and administration officials will help Vermonters get through this crisis.
By narrowing the legislative focus, our officials will better position us to craft quality policies next legislative session, when we can conduct business (hopefully) in-person and as usual.
Richard J. Wobby is Associated General Contractors of Vermont executive vice president.