Newly elected Rep. Leslie Goldman, D-Rockingham, sat alone at her computer feeling sad.
The Vermont Legislature had just adjourned. Instead of a celebration with colleagues, Goldman exited her first legislative session by clicking the Leave Meeting button on her Zoom account.
“I would imagine, it’s like when you do a play and there’s a wrap party,” she said. “There was no opportunity to celebrate as a team, or as a group, so I felt sad about that.”(1)
The 2021 Legislative session, which adjourned May 21, has been described as historic because of its virtual meetings.
Instead of legislators trekking to Montpelier to spend days in the House and Senate chambers and the various committee rooms of the State House, the 2021 session happened completely online via videoconferencing.
Members of the public had unprecedented access to floor debates and committee meetings streaming in real time and subsequently posted to YouTube.
But the same technology also meant lawmakers needed to relearn how to hold intense discussions in a virtual space often void of human interaction like making eye contact or reading body language.
Goldman said that she and other new lawmakers missed out on building in-person relationships with their colleagues. She wonders if spending her first session online will affect how she navigates the second half of the biennium next year.
Yet she imagines the virtual session would also seem harder for seasoned elected officials, too; after all, they would know how much they were missing.
The experience did give them some valuable insight on what their constituents were going through.
“We worry about the children who lost their social-emotional opportunities this year,” Goldman said. “And in a way, I feel like I lost my social-emotional opportunity as a legislator in this first year.”
“I’m a people person,” said Windham County’s other first-time representative, Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, who echoed Goldman’s points about the limits and the opportunities of videoconferencing.
“I want to see people in more dimensions, even though I understand that there are just so many reasons that Zoom is really a good and positive option,” Bos-Lun said. “I’ll be glad when it is just an option.”
Zoom fatigue was not the only thing that made the session notable for every member of the Windham County delegation.
The legislators from southeastern Vermont also mentioned budgeting the $2.7 billion that the state received through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the latest round of federal Covid stimulus funding.
The House and Senate also separately passed their respective versions of a $7 billion state budget. The budget has gone through the House and the Senate and is expected to reach the governor’s desk by the time the new fiscal year begins July 1.(2)
Members spoke of addressing social justice through laws and resolutions like the Joint Resolution “sincerely apologizing and expressing sorrow and regret to all individual Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed as a result of State-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices.”
Meanwhile, all this activity happened under the leadership of Senate Pro Tempore Senator Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro, and Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington. Both were new to their positions and new to leading colleagues through a virtual State House.
According to the state legislative website, Gov. Phil Scott signed 42 bills, including two bills allowed to pass into law without his signature.
Scott vetoed one bill concerning confidentiality of information in the arrest of a juvenile.
Arriving with good intentions
The House accomplished a lot of work despite the session’s many obstacles, said Goldman, who believes that Speaker Krowinski and her team held the House together.
Goldman noticed immediately representatives’ good intentions.
“I think everyone in the State House, no matter where they come from, wanted to do good,” she said. “There are people from all different walks of life, and even though we may disagree on how we got there, we cared about Vermonters, and that I was so glad to learn.”
Goldman, who served on the House Committee on Health Care, noted that some of the bills the committee tackled affected only a few people, while others served the whole state.
A request from the committee to provide a 3-percent increase in wages for mental health care providers who contract with the state Department of Health made it into the budget, she said.
Committee members also worked on workforce development scholarships and other measures to attract more students to nursing.
The budget and the different bills that committees passed represent the state’s priorities. In this view, Goldman said that this legislative work — raising government money and deciding spending priorities for the common good — allows us to live in a civilized society.
“That’s how we do it,” she said. “We pay taxes, which allows us to live in this world and allows us to be educated, allows us to have roads, allows us to tackle climate change.”
Seeking out conversations
Bos-Lun’s first day being fully vaccinated coincided with the last day of the session.
Spurred by a text from another first-year lawmaker, Bos-Lun drove to Montpelier that evening to join eight fellow legislators for pizza.
“And, for most of us, it was the first time we were meeting in person,” she said. “So we got to have pizza on the State House lawn at like, seven o’clock. It was really fun.”
Bos-Lun has had her fill of online meetings. She served on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, where the amount of committee work and how much it shaped legislation surprised her.
Going into the session, Bos-Lun expected lawmakers would sponsor bills and then the body would vote.
“Over half of the time that I spent on Zoom, it was related to my committee,” she said. “Either we were hearing testimony, or we were discussing proposed bills, or we were looking at [updated versions of proposed legislation].”
“Committees, in some ways, are where the work and the decisions happen,” she added.
Corrections and Institutions was the second committee choice for Bos-Lun, who is interested in justice reform and worked for the Brattleboro Community Justice Center as a re-entry coordinator.
Half of the committee work focused on justice reform in the aftermath of allegations of sexual misconduct at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in South Burlington.
The rest of the time, members focused on issues pertaining to state buildings and parks.
The committee also tackled replacing the heating/ventilation/air conditioning (HVAC) systems at courthouses, instituting programs related to water quality, and improving infrastructure at state parks.
“We look at the whole capital bill,” she said, referring to the legislation that funds state building projects. “So we were looking at things that were so broad and so diverse that honestly, many of them were way out of my wheelhouse of knowledge.”
“I don’t even know how to describe it, but, it’s like, I went from kindergarten to graduate school. And suddenly, I was expected to know everything in school. It’s a very fast learning curve,” she said.
Lawmakers received training from state employees on how to find information related to the legislative process and pending bills. Bos-Lun, however, credits support from her fellow representatives for getting her through the session.
Specifically, she credits Rep. Mike Mrowicki, (D-Putney, and the other Windham-4 representative) and vice-chair of Corrections and Institutions Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, for shepherding her through many a meeting.
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, clarified policy issues and advised her on how to dress for Zoom meetings, Bos-Lun said.
She found that help from more-seasoned colleagues invaluable. “But just in terms of the emotional side, it was really wonderful to have a network of new legislators that you could just talk with,” she said.
Goldman met Bos-Lun throughout the session for walks. The two commiserated over the hard work of serving in the State House and the newness of their jobs.
The weekly caucuses were Bos-Lun’s best learning opportunities. These issue-focused groups taught her about different bills and introduced her to many of the people interested in policy, many of whom were not elected officials.
“I actually felt like attending the caucuses really fed my mind, but it also fed my soul in a way that even though I was putting in extra time, I was getting so much,” she said.
To her, some of the bills the House passed will help move society forward in a stronger way: bills that focused on improving child care and social equity, to name one example.
As the session wrapped, Bos-Lun considered what the second half of the biennium will mean.
When the new session starts in January, it will presumably do so without the same isolation and masking requirements in the State House.
As a result, she said she still feels like she’s starting a new job all over again.
“It is significant to know that after hundreds of years operating in one model [in-person], we can change our model and we can still make laws and carry on the work of the state,” she said.
A productive but extremely busy session
“I feel good. I think we got a lot done in some difficult circumstances and some tough times,” Rep. Mike Mrowicki said in summing up the session.
Mrowicki, D-Putney, said that he has spent more time working with constituents during the pandemic.
This year, his to-do list increased as he attended Zoom committee meeting after Zoom floor meeting after Zoom constituent meeting.
Individuals, organizations, and special interest groups quickly learned lawmakers were more accessible at home than they are when they are working in Montpelier, he said.
“It got to the point where there was one group where I said, ‘Well, the only opening I have this week is Sunday morning at eight o’clock,’ and they said, ‘We’ll take it.’”
In Mrowicki’s opinion, the Legislature helped “keep things stable” for Vermonters during a time when COVID-19 easily might have derailed Vermont’s collective locomotive.
Mrowicki said it helped that Vermonters maintained good health practices and that many were on board with receiving the Covid vaccines. He thanked Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine for how they managed the pandemic response.
“The health and safety of Vermonters has always been our primary goal,” he said. “I think we’ve helped a lot of businesses, a lot of individuals.”
The Legislature also confronted the state’s other pandemics which, along with Covid, in Mrowicki’s opinion, are climate change and systemic racism.
“I think equity is something we really need to pay more attention to as this of the country in the face of Vermont’s changes,” he said. “Just look in Brattleboro. Brattleboro Union High School is now 16 percent students of color when 20 years ago, it was about 4 [percent].”
Mrowicki served on the House Committee on Government Operations. He felt good about a new Senate bill that will provide for the mailing of ballots to voters for general elections. The bill also provides a pathway for curing ballots if a voter makes a mistake. For example, if someone forgets to sign the outside of the envelope that certifies their ballot. The bill was delivered to Gov. Scott on June 1.
One bill that won’t make it to the governor this session is one that he co-sponsored to create a State Youth Council. The bill has been referred to Mrowicki, who has tried to start such a council for years. He believes that young people need a stronger voice in the state.
“I’m clear, and Democrats are clear, that this is a time when Vermonters need government more than ever, [a time when] government has to step up and that we’re investing in Vermonters,” he said.
“It’s Vermonters that make Vermont a great place it is,” he continued. “So we want to be clear and get us through this and then start to look ahead to how we build a better Vermont for the next generation.”
An extraordinary session
“I’m really excited by some of the innovative and bold responses that we were able to do [in response to] the pandemic,” Rep. Sara Coffey said. “And capitalizing on these federal dollars that are coming in to really make transformative investments to build back stronger and better to come out of this pandemic, stronger than we came into it.”
Like many of her co-legislators, the Democrat representative for Guilford and Vernon entered the session prepared for a dismal financial and pandemic landscape. Thanks mostly to the federal stimulus money flowing to the states, Vermont’s coffers are OK.
Next year’s finances may be rockier, she said. But at least, the Legislature has had the freedom in the first session of the biennium to make investments and pass legislation that addresses issues such as climate change and racial equity, Coffey added.
Despite Coffey’s relief at how Vermont is moving through the pandemic, she also feels it necessary to overcome some of the division happening in Washington, D.C.
On Jan. 6 — the same day Coffey, as a member of the Canvassing Committee, was certifying Vermont’s votes over Zoom — rioters swarmed the U.S. Capitol.
She felt the nation’s democracy was threatened.
“Having that backdrop, I felt like we had to work extra hard — at least, I worked extra hard — to really reach across the aisle,” she said. “Yeah, I think that was a huge part of it.”
“I hope we’ll look back at it and say, ‘Look at how Vermonters came together to put our oars in the water and work together to do the best that we can do for Vermont,’” Coffey said.
“And I think, for the most part, that really did happen. There were a few things where we felt the division along party lines, but I think overall, it was a really strong session where we were able to pull together and hammer some things out,” she added.
Coffey noticed a handful of Republicans mirroring the rhetoric of their national counterparts.
She said this behavior showed up in debates on the House floor, specifically around discussions of universal vote-by-mail and racial justice.
Coffey hopes that, when lawmakers return to the State House in January, discussion in physical space, in the building itself, will change the tenor of conversations.
“There’s something about speaking in that space that brings such a sense of decorum and ritual and importance,” she said. “And I think it’ll be really wonderful to come back into that space because I think it demands that we speak respectfully of each other ... and that we really uphold our state’s constitution.”
A tradition of working together
Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, said that overall the session was positive.
The Vermont political tradition of working together despite differences seems to be holding even in the age of divisive politics, she said.
She has high hopes for how lawmakers invested the federal Covid relief monies. That fiscal elbow room has allowed the state to “deal with some recalcitrant issues.”
“I hope these investments will make a big difference in the future,” she said.
Finding solutions to climate change has remained one of Burke’s overarching goals for serving in the Legislature.
Burke, who serves on the House Committee on Transportation, says transportation is the sector in the state responsible for the largest volume of emissions. While she is happy with many of the incentives to move people from fossil-fuel-based transportation to electric vehicles and bikes, Burke said that low-income households should also have access to these options.
An exciting part of this year’s transportation bill (the “T-bill,” in legislative parlance) is investigating the feasibility of on-demand bus service. Burke also got into the bill a small amount of money to help low-income households purchase electric bikes.
Burke felt that some of the climate-change-related actions, such as the Scott administration’s support and funding for electric vehicles, point to the state as a whole “all seeming to be pulling in the same direction.”
Looking for more people
This session marked a transition for Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, who moved out of his previous role as majority leader to the House Committee on Appropriations.
“Very much at one level, it was a great exciting new experience,” he said. “It also meant by necessity that I was less focused on other things lawmakers were doing.”
Appropriations needed to quickly respond to the state’s changing finances as the pandemic stretched into 12 months and federal emergency funds reached the state.
The guidelines attached to the federal funds from the latest stimulus bill added a layer of complexity, he said. Each of the three rounds of money came with different rules. For example, the rules for spending money provided by ARPA changed two weeks before the session ended, Toleno said.
In his opinion, what makes this session potentially historic is the question around how to use some of the federal funds yet to be spent.
Toleno found the issues of balance — immediately funding pandemic needs while also building a long-term strategy for how to invest the federal funds — complex and interesting.
“Living in that complexity defined my particular experience of this session,” he said.
Toleno also serves on the state workforce board and wants to rethink the state’s workforce strategy — a measure that will need Gov. Scott’s support.
Vermont’s unemployment rate is close to 2 percent again, he noted — effectively, full employment. The people who are still struggling to find work probably also have a number of barriers, like lack of child care or transportation, he said.
The state’s shrinking population and its demographic challenges is top of mind for Toleno. The decade or more of demographic decline — and, with it, tax revenues — is eroding the state’s financial ability to meet the commitments it has made to Vermonters such as addressing issues of trauma, poverty, and improving the state colleges, he said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic could potentially accelerate how some people participate in the economy, Toleno continued — like folks close to retirement age choosing to leave the work force early. Such trends might accelerate some of the workforce issues the state is facing, he added.
Toleno hopes that the number of people who chose to shelter in Vermont during the pandemic might represent a demographic shift, similar to the one that happened in the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people interested in the back-to-the-land movement migrated to Vermont.
“So I hold out hope that we are in the middle of that historic shift,” he said.
The need for systems that can adapt
“I think people understood the gravity and the opportunity in the moment,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser about the session. “And it really helped us show up through the tough times and the fatigue.”
Kornheiser said that the virtual meetings didn’t allow for immediate connections between legislators, such as eye contact or an encouraging nod. This distance made having difficult discussions that much harder.
Yet, she also noticed a shift in lawmakers’ response to the three rounds of federal Covid funds. When the federal government under the Trump administration released its first round of funding in 2020, Kornheiser said the Legislature felt that lawmakers would do the best they could with a pot of relief money that felt small, pressured, and scarce.
Now that the ARPA funds have arrived, and a large influx for infrastructure potentially close behind, depending on the outcome of one of the Biden administration’s top priorities, there is a sense of abundance. This sense has given the Legislature breathing room and the willingness to plan for the long term.
“In that context, it’s become much more important to put people first,” she said.
In previous sessions, lawmakers have identified issues like broadband, child care, and housing as top needs — without the federal funding to also act on them. A hallmark of the session was that the Legislature named problems and started to solve them, she said.
“That’s groundbreaking,” she said.
One piece of state government that remains on Kornheiser’s radar is the unemployment insurance system.
Early in the pandemic, the surge in unemployment claims overpowered the outdated computer system at the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL). Not only did the department struggle to distribute unemployment benefits, but it also struggled to adapt as the pandemic progressed and many Vermonters’ needs deepened.
In Kornheiser’s opinion, the situation did not improve when the Legislature returned to work in January. Many lawmakers acted almost as case managers to help constituents struggling with the unemployment insurance system.
And while colleagues did work with VDOL to make improvements, in Kornheiser’s opinion, most of the state’s financial help went to businesses before it went to workers.
Kornheiser said that in conversations around an effort to extend some unemployment benefits to workers with dependents, she felt frustrated when she was told that the agency’s computer system could not handle dispersing the funds.
“At one point, I said, ‘We have a spaceship on Mars right now, so I don’t want you to tell me it’s not possible, I want you to tell me what you’ll need to make it possible,’” she said.
In the end, since the computer system couldn’t handle restricting disbursed funds to claimants with dependents, the supplemental benefit was rolled into legislation that extended the benefits to all unemployment beneficiaries, Kornheiser explained.
This bill — an act dealing with employee incentives, technical education, and unemployment insurance — was delivered to the governor on May 27. It also includes creating a task force to review VDOL’s information technology needs.
“As a bill, I think it has something for absolutely everyone in it, in the very best way,” she said. “And so I’m really excited that we’re able to meet both businesses’ and beneficiary’s needs with this bill.”
Agreeing on the problem
How to fund the state’s pension liability occupied a lot of time for Rep. John Gannon of Wilmington.
“For me, it was an extremely difficult session,” he said.
As a Democrat, he felt the issue of finding a way to fully fund pensions for teachers and state employees was hard because often the employees’ union, the administration, and Legislature didn’t agree on the actual problem.
“If you can’t agree on the problem, coming up with solutions can be hard,” he said.
For a variety of reasons, the pension program has gone underfunded for decades — by more than $5 billion.
In January, Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce submitted a report recommending multiple reductions in pension benefits to keep up with the growing liability.
According to Gannon, the liability affects all Vermonters because it has an impact on the General Fund.
Several bills dealt with different aspects of the pension system. A bill of note to Gannon is one that outlines the duties of the Pension Investment Committee and creates the Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force. Both House and Senate have passed their respective versions of the bill.
Gannon also worked on what he calls “Cannabis 2.0,” a series of bills dealing with the establishment of a retail market for recreational use of marijuana. He’s proud of the work lawmakers did with creating and filing two House bills that, if passed, create a social equity fund to help communities negatively effected by the war on drugs build business.
According to the Legislative website, both these bills are still in committee.
Earlier this year, Gov. Scott appointed members to the three-person Cannabis Control Board. The earliest the board will provide licenses will be May 2022, Gannon said.
Now that the session has ended, he will continue his focus on the pension system. He is also starting to review population data ahead of the state’s redistricting process.
According to preliminary Census data, all but one district in Windham County lost population. It’s too early to know what this will mean for the county’s representation in Montpelier, he said.
Gannon also co-chairs, with Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, the state’s Sunset Commission, which reviews boards and commissions to see if they are still relevant, he said.
The boards help provide a public point of view for legislators and state workers, he said, but their quasi-volunteer members also receive a per diem stipend. So the value of the public input must be balanced against a commission’s cost to the state, he said.
Inequity destabilizes the economy
In her experience over the last few years, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, has seen that as inequity increases in the economy, so does instability.
An economy does not function without equity, she said.
“This session was about, ‘How do we make historic investments in our state that will have an impact long past when we’re here?” Sibilia said.
The lawmaker believes it’s important that the Legislature help strengthen its rural economy.
As a result of decades of under-investment, a chasm has formed in the U.S. between the communities that appear to have a healthy economy and those that do not, she said.
As a mostly rural state, even Vermont’s more urban areas are just keeping up — and, meanwhile, she said, its rural areas are struggling.
Sibilia noted four major points of the session.
The first was passing a joint resolution condemning the Jan. 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol. The resolution also called for former President Donald Trump to step down and for former Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The resolution passed with a large tri-partisan majority, she said.
“It was a big shot of hope at a really disturbing time,” she said.
Pushing forward legislation to implement the recommendations in the UVM Pupil Weighting Study, which could alter how the state determines how much it costs to educate students, was another prime focus for Sibilia.
She said it felt heartening to hear fellow lawmakers recognize the systemic inequities that exist in the current education funding formula.
She credits the Windham County delegation for ensuring the Senate bill’s passage. This bill was delivered to the governor on June 1.
Sibilia’s next big policy area was broadband. Two years ago, a new law enabled Communications Union Districts to create community-based broadband projects. This year, the focus was on providing funding and technical assistance to implement the projects that are emerging from the new process, she said.
One such project is DVFiber, which will serve more than 20 towns in Windham County.
“Then, boom! ARPA,” Sibilia said. “And we already had massive shovel-ready projects to build critical infrastructure.”
Unlike some false starts in the realm of broadband, these projects are “accountable to Vermonters because Vermonters are doing them,” she said.
Finally, Sibilia said she is reflecting on how the session highlighted where Vermont has been as a state and where it still needs to go.
Sibilia cosponsored a joint resolution that identifies racism as a public health emergency.
Some of her fellow lawmakers opposed the resolution, she said. Many of the words spoken echoed sentiments from 2017 that she heard during the floor discussion related to a resolution that year to recognize the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Sibilia said she was sitting next to former Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, during that discussion. Morris, a Black woman, resigned in 2018 because of recurring instances of racially motivated threats and online harassment.
After all this time and after witnessing Morris’s experience, Sibilia said, “It was really distressing to hear.”
Government is about people
“We did the absolute best job that we could under a lot of challenging circumstances,” said Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry.
One of those challenges for her? Zoom meetings.
“It is not the most efficient and effective way to communication with other humans,” she said.
Still, she said, the fact that even a few years ago the Legislature might not have had the technology to convene remotely makes this virtual session feel big.
Pajala serves on the House Committee on Human Services, which also produced a many-faceted bill to improve Vermont’s child care system.
Pajala also heralded a bill that decriminalizes small amounts of buprenorphine, often used in medication-assisted treatment of substance-use disorder.
The bill was delivered to the governor on May 26. He signed it into law on Tuesday.
“Hopefully, with the pandemic, this will help save lives,” she said.
Pajala said she looks forward reading a recent report from the Task Force for Universal Afterschool Access.
She is also a member of the Joint Legislative Child Protection Oversight Committee and anticipates multiple meetings in the coming months as the committee works on a replacement of the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex.
“I enjoy staying engaged outside the session,” she said.
Staying engaged will extend to constituent work as Pajala looks forward to seeing people in person again.
Over the past few years, distrusting politicians has become the norm, she said.
Given the challenges of the session and the sense of mistrust that many hold for the government, Pajala said it felt more important that ever that lawmakers should approach their work with the best intentions. She believes that’s what happened in this session.
“Government is ultimately about people, no matter how much one might think otherwise,” she said.
A chance to address longstanding issues
“I’m pleased with how things ended up in terms of the budget,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham. “My own committee, we worked on and passed, several really good bills, and they’ve gotten through the entire process so far.”
The real plus of this session? It had a stopping point.
Partridge chairs the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry. In addition to the bills that entered the committee anew this biennium, “House Ag” also finished a few bills that had languished for years.
Bills like one that solidified which agency had regulatory authority over facilities that create compost using chickens. It’s now law.
“I know it sounds like a crazy thing, but for years, there’s been a dispute,” she said.
Under the state’s universal recycling law, Vermonters must compost their food scraps in an attempt to keep it out of the waste stream.
Partridge feeds hers to her family’s chickens. Other people may have a backyard compost heap. But for people in residential areas, they may need to rely on a trash hauler or compost company.
A few compost companies in the state allow chickens to forage through the compost.
“So it’s kind of a service to Vermont to do this,” Partridge said. “But food scraps are not considered commercial animal feed, they’re considered solid waste.”
Meaning that solid waste issues go to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
This department didn’t really want to oversee chickens and compost, she said. The compost companies, which are also farmers, preferred to be classified as agriculture.
But, Partridge continued, the Department of Agriculture, Food, and Markets — “Ag” — also didn’t want to handle the issue because compost isn’t considered commercial feed.
“So but at any rate, Ag relented and they are now in charge of this aspect of farming,” she said. “And maybe it’s not all that important, but it’s huge, because we’ve been dealing with this for five or six years.”
Another bill that has spent years in the making but passed this session was related to animal cruelty, investigation, response, and training.
This bill outlines who can investigate an animal cruelty situation. It also defines a humane officer and what training a person needs to hold the position, Partridge said.
Even though the committee had gone through the whole legislative process with the bill in previous sessions, the process had to begin from scratch.
“I had new members,” she said. “So it’s not like we could just say, ‘OK, everybody, we did this last year, we can just slam dunk it.’ We had to take them through the process and get a certain amount of testimony.”
Partridge said she is happy with how the Legislature used the federal Covid funds. She is also proud that many of the bills which committees evaluated this session were done using the lens of racial and social equity.
Focusing on the future
“Historic” and “intense”: two words used by House Majority Leader Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, to describe the session.
In her last meeting, Long said she told the representatives that they had made it through the unusual session with flexibility, tenacity, and patience.
“It was hard, but I think we handled it well,” she said.
One reason this session was so challenging compared to 2020 is that early on, leadership tried to mimic a “normal” legislative session online, she explained.
Matching a non-virtual session included matching the Legislature’s four-days-a-week schedule, its timeline for bills to move through both chambers, and its process for committee work.
Last year, she said, committees met less frequently because they couldn’t — they were bottlenecked by technology. Over the summer, however, the state’s information technology employees and then-Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D–South Hero, prepared for 2021, according to Long.
“That made us all have the expectation that we’d operate like we normally would and get a lot done,” Long said.
Long will soon relaunch her third-Saturday constituents hours for Newfane and Townshend residents at the Moore Free Library.
“It’s so important that we stay focused on the future — as challenging as the last year has been, it has also given us some opportunities,” she said.
For example, this session solidified how important broadband is and shined a spotlight on the disparities in health outcomes between black and white Vermonters.
Long said she is concerned about Vermonters’ finances and that the Legislature needs to find a path forward for people who could get left behind as the state recovers from the pandemic.
For Long, her work as majority leader took on new dimensions during the session.
Being majority leader requires moving the House Democrats in the same direction — and that has to happen whether the House meets in person on online, she said.
What felt new was that members were dealing with the pandemic’s uncertainty, changes, anxiety, and trying to fit their public work into their private homes. Many also had young children at home, she added.
Even so, the representatives dug in and did the work, Long said.
Long felt sorry for the approximately 40 new House members because they had missed seeing the State House in action and being part of building relationships within its corridors.
Even though the session has ended, Long said her work continues.
As majority leader, she will help plan for January. She hopes to travel around the state this summer to meet the new lawmakers. She says jokingly that they might feel as if they know her well from seeing her on their computer screens, but she expects most to be surprised when they meet her.
“Most don’t realize that I’m over 6 feet tall,” Long said.
The challenges of maintaining virtual decorum
Over in the Senate, Jeanette White, D-Putney, described the session as unprecedented more than historic: To her knowledge, no other legislature in the country has held a completely virtual session.
As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, White worked on the new universal vote-by-mail bill. She has also been involved with creating a regulated cannabis market.
She praised Balint’s leadership during the unusual session. Leading the Senate during an in-person year is already work, she said — but Balint, who has led the fully remote session as a new president pro tempore, “has done a great job,” she said.
Describing online meetings as frustrating, White said it’s always important to maintain respect if the Legislature expects to function. White felt that people behave differently in the online world.
“People are more emboldened to say nasty things and often react differently than when in person,” she said.
White directly experienced a tsunami of public comment in April after she spoke in committee regarding banning what is referred to as the “gay panic” defense. The bill, signed into law this year, limits criminal defenses based on victim identity.
White started her comments saying she didn’t think she liked the bill. She went on to use the example of white woman being attacked by a Black man.
The public response was immediate. Commenters from across the country phoned White, saying she was racist and homophobic. John Walters, who writes the Vermont Political Observer blog, titled one post, “Senator Pukes on Her Own Shoes; Blames the Shoes.”
Looking back, White said she understands why her comments offended people. Since the incident, she has spoken to many people about how she could have approached the discussion better, she said.
White added that when she later apologized, she should have simply said that she was sorry. Instead, she had also tried to explain herself — and in so doing made things worse, she said.
But, weeks later, she did want to explain.
She said that she was trying to ask whether the proposed language, which was limited to banning a criminal defense that centered around shock at one’s gender identity as a defense strategy, should be expanded to include all identities, such as racial or ethnic.
She said she never should have used an example when asking her question.
On the flip side, White said that she has also heard from colleagues that the incident chilled their desire to speak or ask questions in public.
“It makes people leery about asking the really hard questions we have to ask,” she said. “And if we don’t ask the questions, we won’t get the best legislation.”
“When I look back at what we were actually able to get done, it’s kind of remarkable that people really, on most days, brought their best selves to getting work done for Vermonters,” said Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro.
Balint, the first female to lead the state Senate, took her oath of office on the same day as the riots in the U.S. Capitol and amidst the ongoing uncertainty created by the pandemic.
“We had so much pressure on us to both think about short-term needs of Vermonters while juggling the long term,” she said. “And for me personally, being the first woman to do the job, certainly, I thought about that a lot and the expectations about what people thought women leaders should be like, or what I should be like.”
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Danville, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told Balint that this year’s budget was the most complicated she’d ever worked on because of the federal funds involved.
Balint noted that in building the budget she felt a philosophical and values difference between lawmakers and Gov. Scott on how to spend the federal funds.
In her opinion, the majority of the Legislature wanted to invest in human capital or initiatives that would support workers and families. The governor, she said, wanted to spend the money on “bricks and mortar.”
The Legislature will return to work at the end of June for a veto session, Balint said. She also expects they will also meet in October. But with the session otherwise completed, she contemplated this most unusual forced experiment in virtual lawmaking.
Despite the challenges, Balint noted that the online meetings also marked the session as one of the most accessible, especially for residents in the southernmost counties.
Driving two hours for a meeting doesn’t work well for most Windham County residents, she said, noting that lawmakers and state employees have discussed how to keep the positive aspects of virtual meetings.
But, she cautioned, there are a lot of committees involved. Instituting permanent changes — for example, continuing to live-stream committee meetings — will take time.
“So it’s exciting to think about how do we, going forward, integrate what we love about in-person when the doors of the State House open,” she said, “but also having it accessible to people back home.”
Another challenge of the virtual session was that many lawmakers were “not ready for prime time.”
As citizen legislators, many of Balint’s colleagues were unaccustomed to appearing on YouTube and having every single word and gesture scrutinized not only by Vermonters but by people from across the world.
“That has been a challenge for many of my colleagues, and for me as a leader, to try to figure out, ‘How do I get them the training that they need?’ Not just around really important consequential things like gender and race and equity, but also, ‘How do you run a meeting over Zoom?’” she said.
Given the strife and unrest at the national level, it felt necessary to Balint that the Legislature renew Vermonters’ faith in democratic institutions.
“It matters that citizens can see a functioning government that is trying desperately to meet the needs of Vermonters and that people and families are not getting lost in political posturing,” she said.