With a quick trip to Montpelier, Vermont lawmakers kick off 2022 session

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, speaks in favor of allowing the House of Representatives to work remotely on the opening day of the Legislature at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The energy was congenial as members of the Vermont House exchanged hugs, handshakes and back slaps Tuesday on the first day of the legislative session. For many, it was their first day in the Statehouse since 2020. 

But the lawmakers left as quickly as they came, gaveling in for just a 45-minute floor session before returning to their cars and heading home to their computer screens. Members of the Vermont Senate, with only a few exceptions, didn’t trek to Montpelier in the first place, tuning into their first day of legislative activity remotely at 10 a.m.

Until last week, the plan had been for lawmakers to hold the 2022 legislative session in person after a session and a half of remote legislating, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Legislators heard testimony from medical experts and determined a set of rules to abide by in the Statehouse — vaccine and testing requirements, mandatory face masks and social distancing — in hopes of safely convening in person.

But on Dec. 28 they reversed course, citing concerns over the rapidly spreading and highly contagious Omicron variant.

The Senate had the authority to convene remotely from the start, piggybacking off of last year’s rules, which ran through the start of the 2022 session. The House, on the other hand, required a quorum to vote on a resolution allowing for remote work for the first two weeks of the session.

All wearing masks and sitting in assigned, socially distanced seats marked with pink signs, House members passed the measure by an overwhelming majority, 106-19.

Legislative leadership maintains that the move is necessary to keep legislators, staffers and Vermonters safe as the state grapples with a Covid surge following holiday gatherings. On Tuesday, the Department of Health reported yet another record-breaking day of cases.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told VTDigger Tuesday afternoon that “we all want to be back in the building, but we need to make sure that it's safe.”

“I think people are exhausted and wishing that we were out of this pandemic, but we are not,” she said. “And so, what we did today was to bring to the body a compromise that was worked through across party lines, across chambers, to find a way to bridge us and see what happens with this latest variant.”

While 19 House members defiantly voted against the resolution, others said that they would “reluctantly” vote for it — at least this time.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said on the House floor that she would support Tuesday’s resolution “out of respect” for the legislators and staffers who “scrambled” to arrange remote work capabilities at the last minute. But she pledged that this would be the last time she would vote in favor of remote legislating this year.

“This session, we will be taking up issues relating to changing our constitution, to women's reproductive freedom, a number of very serious issues,” she said. “While we are not feeling safe to be here in this building, our kids and our teachers are in theirs. And we have some very important issues around education — finance, teacher pensions — that we need to take up and we should be doing that in person.”

Off the floor, Sibilia added that legislating remotely is just not the same, and that “there are 100 conversations that you will have a day in this building, keeping you apprised, so that you can keep your constituents apprised.” She said it’s difficult to stay in the loop from home, especially if you’re not a member of the majority party.

A number of members said that for the Legislature to decide to work remotely is an insult to frontline workers who have had to show up to work throughout the entirety of the pandemic. 

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, told VTDigger that she is “sympathetic, absolutely, to (those) feelings,” but that the Statehouse is a different kind of workplace: Lawmakers come to Montpelier from every corner of the state, and if there’s an outbreak, they could take the virus home to their communities.

“Unfortunately, in politics, optics are always part of the conversation, but they cannot drive the work that you do,” Balint said. “So the goal is for us to be back in the building, as soon as we can safely do that.”

When lawmakers might return to Montpelier for good is unclear. Legislative leaders say they will settle on a plan in the next two weeks, before the current remote work rules expire. The Joint Rules Committee is set to discuss it on Thursday afternoon.

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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