Legislature finishes historic session

MONTPELIER — After sending a $7.35 billion state budget to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, the Vermont Legislature adjourned this past Friday, ending a historic legislative session marked by remote lawmaking and the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For what many hope to be the last time, legislators in the House and Senate met via the teleconferencing app Zoom, displayed in a sea of squares on a YouTube livestream, to pass final pieces of legislation before wrapping up their work for the year.

Signs of the abating pandemic were visible Friday as a handful of maskless senators joined Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray in the Statehouse in Montpelier.

“It is so wonderful to be in the chamber and have some senators here with me today,” Balint told her colleagues ahead of adjournment. “It means that there are such bright days ahead.”

Lawmakers have worked remotely since the pandemic struck Vermont in March 2020. But the Democratic leaders of the Legislature plan to resume in-person meetings at the Statehouse next January.

While the work has been remote for nearly a year and a half, legislators said it never grew easy or felt normal. It has been hard to build relationships and tackle complex or contentious policy matters online, they said.

It was clear on Friday — the second time in two years that a legislative session has concluded on Zoom — that lawmakers were yearning for pre-pandemic times.

“Here we are sitting in front of our Hollywood squares computers for what I hope will be the last time we meet as a body via Zoom,” said Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the House minority leader.

“I think all of us long for the day when we can sit around a committee table and discuss issues and actually see the person we are speaking to from head to toe,” she said.

Before they adjourned, legislators passed a state budget bill that would invest hundreds of millions of dollars into broadband, measures to fight climate change, affordable housing projects and other initiatives.

This year’s spending package benefited from a windfall produced by the federal American Rescue Plan Act. It provided state leaders more than $1 billion and the flexibility to use the money to respond to the pandemic and fund infrastructure projects.

This year’s budget allocates $599 million of those funds, including $150 million for broadband expansion, $120 million for clean water projects and $52 million to update aging state information technology infrastructure.

The budget would direct a combined $190 million in state and federal dollars to affordable housing and efforts to relocate those experiencing homelessness from the hotels and motels in which they have stayed during the pandemic. Lawmakers also earmarked $50 million for climate change measures, including nearly $20 million for weatherization projects.

“These are truly incredible investments and they will have ripple effects for generations of Vermonters to come,” said House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, in closing remarks to her chamber.

Krowinski noted that this year’s legislative session was concluding without “major conflict” between state leaders.

Scott vetoed one bill on Thursday — a measure that would have prohibited police from identifying individuals under the age of 19 arrested for certain crimes — but it does not appear that he will kill any other legislation.

On Friday, the Republican governor signaled at a press conference that he would sign the budget the House and Senate agreed to this week.

Though Scott and lawmakers had some technical disagreements over how the federal money should be spent, they generally agreed on the major investments they’d like to make in the coming years.

The governor joined both the House and Senate as they adjourned late Friday afternoon, addressing legislators remotely from his office in Montpelier.

Scott praised the Legislature for its budget proposal and a litany of other bills they passed this year, including legislation that will expand investments in the state’s childcare system, ban the LGBTQ “panic” defense and improve equity in the health care system.

“In January, I asked that we work together, not just to get through the pandemic, but to face our long-standing challenges head on,” Scott told the Senate.

“I said, if we work together and put politics and partisan agendas aside, we can pass a budget that could truly transform the future, and set us on a path that supports all Vermonters in every corner of our state. My friends, we’ve done that,” he said.

Lawmakers have booked a veto session for June 23 and 24, but it’s unclear whether they will reconvene in order to revive the legislation Scott blocked this week.

In his final remarks, Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, the Senate’s minority leader, said he was eager to work at the Statehouse again next year.

“I’ve missed the facial expressions. I’ve missed the asides. I’ve missed the hallway conversations. I’ve missed the direct collegiality,” Brock said.

But he also applauded the Legislature for maintaining its operations during the pandemic.

“We’ve kept the doors open, not just for ourselves, but also for the public, even though those doors in many ways, have simply been virtual,” Brock said. “I’m looking forward to seeing you all back again in person.”

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