Legislative leaders ponder week-long recess of Legislature

by Guy Page

March 12, 2020 – The Vermont Legislature Joint Rules Committee decided late this afternoon to ask staffers to prepare a resolution for its review tomorrow to recess the Legislature and close the State House for a week due to the coronavirus.

If adopted, a weeklong recess would be an appropriate response to a virus with a dangerous delay between infection and showing of symptoms. “It’s because of the contagion, and the four-day incubation period,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson explained. “When we talk to other states that are in much more dire situations than ours, the one thing we hear is, ‘we wish we had acted sooner.'”

The final decision is likely to be made when Joint Rules meets tomorrow meeting at 8:30 AM in Room 10. If it occurs, the weeklong recess – possibly next week but also possibly in a following week – could be extended if necessary. The body also could be brought back if necessary to approve federal emergency spending. The Joint Rules Committee is comprised of Sen. Richard Mazza, Sen. Joe Benning, Rep. Patti McCoy, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, Sen. Becca Balint, Rep. Jill Krowinski, and Rep. Emily Long.

The recess also would give the State House cleaning crew an opportunity to thoroughly clean the facility. The Health Department has not make a recommendation about closing the State House.

Wednesday, the Joint Rules Committee decided to cancel any non-essential meetings such as receptions, concerts, and other gatherings not directly related to legislation action and staff support. (It was noted however that that this information, although shared in an email this morning, has not been publicly communicated to all visitors.)

Police Chief Matt Romei was asked yesterday if an effective public screening process could be implemented. Today Romei said the four-day delay between contagion and symptoms makes any practical screening tool ineffective. Other police chiefs and public health organizations are recommending social distancing instead of screening, he said. He noted that the U.S. Capitol has restricted access to visitors.

Progress on essential legislation would have some bearing on which week the proposed recess would fall. “I don’t have a specific list (of bills) that we could get done tomorrow,” Johnson said. However, the appropriations and transportation bills could be approved by the House by the end of next week – but then must go through the Senate.

In a Senate meeting following the Joint Rules Committee meeting, Sen. John Rodgers expressed concern that a shutdown could lead to a chain reaction could lead to multiple shutdowns of businesses and other institutions, making it harder for people to earn paychecks to pay for the mortgage, he said. Sen. Ann Cummings echoed this concern.

The committee then turned to public access to the building. As soon as possible, “only essential personnel should be allowed in the building,” Joe Benning said. Ashe then asked, what constitutes essential personnel? “Access to democracy is very important. I don’t know if it is possible for there to be a pool for the press,” Benning said. All witnesses in committees that are not members of staff should be given a directive to testify by phone, he suggested. The point is to limit access to the building “as much as we constitutionally can.”

“If we are saying that a lobbyist is no more important than a citizen to be in a committee room, I would have a problem with that,” Ashe said. He said he wants to avoid the appearance of a “two-tiered citizenship.” Requiring people to testify only by phone should be accompanied by prohibiting onlookers to attend in person, Ashe suggested.