Considerations from the (figurative) capital: Legislating amidst the Covid-19 crisis

By KAITLYN GIROUARD

BENJY RENTON
Hannaford Supermarket in Middlebury last November. Grocery store employees, healthcare professionals, first responders and other essential workers were the focus of the “COVID-19 Essential Employees Hazard Grant Program” bill, which recently passed in the Vermont senate.

Vermont lawmakers have experienced a drastic change in their work since the Covid-19 outbreak began, and are now passing legislation remotely from their homes instead of in Montpelier. The Campus spoke with Vermont State Senator Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) about how the legislative session is continuing and what legislation has been passed in response to the pandemic.

Governor Phil Scott (R) declared a state of emergency on March 13 in response to Covid-19. “In a state of emergency, the Governor is really in charge of the response because the executive branch can act much more quickly than the legislature,” Senator Hardy said. The Vermont General Assembly is hard at work on legislation related to the pandemic, but the primary response and orders are under the discretion of the Governor and his office. 

On May 1, Scott announced new steps in the process of reopening the state’s economy. These measures included the allowance of certain manufacturing, distribution and construction work in compliance with specified safety measures. One safety requirement calls for pre-screenings before each work shift to check all employees for symptoms of the virus. 

While the governor deals with matters of closure and reopening of the state, the legislature has focused on working on bills that will address the needs of Vermonters under the new orders and the reality of the outbreak. 

The first task of the legislature was figuring out how to conduct their work in a way that adhered to social distancing guidelines, but did not break any rules that applied to the legislative bodies and their work.

“It took us a little bit of time to work out how we were allowed to do our work,” Hardy said. “We actually had to change the rules of the legislature to enable us to meet remotely because prior to this, we couldn’t meet remotely at all.” Hardy said the Senate was able to change those rules relatively quickly because there are only 30 senators. Because the Assembly requires representatives to vote in-person on rule changes, it took the 150-member House longer to assemble and agree to go fully remote.

Now House of Representatives and Senate sessions are live-streamed for anyone to watch on YouTube. “In some ways, it has made [our work] a lot more publicly accessible,” Hardy said.

One of the first priorities for Vermont lawmakers was adjusting the healthcare system and facilities so that the health of Vermonters was the best it could be during this time. “The first pieces of legislation that we did were to make things easier for our government to operate,” Hardy said, citing actions like making telemedicine visits covered by health insurance. 

“For example, when a hospital wants to expand its facilities, it has to apply to expand,” Hardy said. “[The General Assembly] wanted to make it easier for hospitals to do things like set up new facilities for Covid-19 patients, so we allowed them to do a lot of expansions and things really quickly if they were related to Covid-19.”

In addition to addressing healthcare, Vermont legislators have also worked on matters relating to local government and education, including allowing school boards and select boards to meet remotely and increasing the flexibility of elections. 

“We did a bill that would allow elections to be done either by mail or by drive-up, [giving] the Secretary of State flexibility in how elections can proceed so that we prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Senator Hardy said. 

Legislators have also been working on ways to lessen the financial burden of the pandemic and to recognize the bravery and sacrifice of frontline workers. On May 1, the Senate passed Bill S.346, which Hardy said would provide $1,000 per month in pay for two months for essential workers with potential exposure to Covid-19. 

“The majority of [these essential workers] are types of healthcare workers in lots of different settings… but it also includes grocery store workers and first responders,” Senator Hardy explained. That bill is currently being read in the House. 

The Senate has also passed a bill that expands hazard pay for workers who face a heightened risk of being exposed to Covid-19, “If somebody is working and they are exposed at work, then they can get workers compensation for it,” Senator Hardy said. This bill was also transferred to the House for their consideration this week. 

Another matter of importance for lawmakers was evictions. “The House [last] Friday passed a bill that [the Senate] had earlier passed that would basically stop all evictions in the state,” Hardy said. “That was important so that people wouldn’t become homeless during the pandemic.”

Hardy explained that, since Governor Scott declared the state of emergency, the only legislation that the General Assembly has worked on has been related to Covid-19. While there are some bills that were being considered pre-Covid-19 outbreak that might still be in the works, Hardy said most other work is probably not going to be addressed this session. 

The legislature will need to take up the matter of the state budget and the state’s finances next, including a budget adjustment for FY20, followed by a short term budget for the following fiscal year.

“We have to change this [fiscal year’s] budget because things have changed so much,” Hardy said. “We’ll probably come back in the Fall and pass the full budget for FY21 [since] the state revenues have plummeted significantly and we have far less money available to us than we did just a few months ago.”

 

For a complete list of General Assembly bills and resolutions related to Covid-19, visit www.legislature.vermont.gov

 

Editor’s note: Ruth Hardy is married to Middlebury College Professor of Film and Media Culture Jason Mittell, who is the Campus’s academic advisor. All questions may be directed to [email protected]