Legislative leaders set to recess Legislature next week

By Guy Page

March 13, 2020 – The Legislative Joint Rules Committee voted unanimously this morning to prepare a resolution to recess for all of next week, due to coronavirus concerns. The final decision will be made when Joint Rules meets again later this morning.

The decision to adjourn for at least a week would be made by Joint Rules alone and is not be subject to confirmation by the full Legislature. The weeklong break will give time for a thorough cleaning of the State House and will give legislative leaders a chance to consider the next move. The recess could be extended, or even abbreviated if emergency legislation is required.

Gov. Phil Scott has scheduled a 5:30 press conference today to discuss Covid-19 preparations. Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden) said he has not coordinated with the governor since yesterday but plans to do so later today.

Today is the “crossover” deadline for all non-“money” bills to be voted out of committee. Joint Rules agreed in principle to extend the deadline for essential legislation. Senate and House leaders will discuss with committee chairs to develop a priority list of essential legislation to be worked on before the new crossover date. 

Republican and Democratic leaders disagreed on what might constitute “essential” legislation. 

The Senate GOP caucus earlier this morning “recommended we shut down for two weeks, that there be no one in the building from this afternoon on” but cleaning personnel, Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said.  Given the two week incubation period, the Legislature should be “getting only the bills out that are absolutely necessary….I suspect that the curve is still on the upswing and that we are nowhere near the top of that curve.”

Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham) said Vermonters need the Legislature to do more than just pass the budget. “Today in finance we are hearing from banks [and other financial leaders on financial issues] that will directly impact how Vermonters will navigate this virus. We’re not going to take an extended break until we are sure we are taking care of the people at home.”

Benning understood but noted that “many of our committees are immersed in bills that are not critical to the safety of the people.” 

Ashe then said, “The work that has to be done are the critical pieces, and everything else has to be let go.” There was no discussion of specific “essential” bills, other than budget and the House Transportation Committee bill, which covers funding for highway construction and repair.

Joint Rules also resolved that legislative workers will receive full pay during the recess. Directors of the legislative support services said their staff can work remotely from home.