By Guy Page
Members of the Vermont State House press corps are being routinely shut out of in-person coverage of committee discussion of major legislation.
Last year, the Legislature instituted capacity limits in committee rooms, in response to Covid and other respiratory public health concerns. The rooms are small, the meetings are long, and many lawmakers are elderly and susceptible to age-related illnesses. The State House’s recent (and apparently fixed) mold problem has not been forgotten.
For some large rooms – such as Room 11, now home of House Appropriations – capacity caps are rarely a problem.
But many big bills come out of small committee rooms.
The tiny Senate Judiciary Committee room, for example, is limited to 12 people. Five committee members and the committee assistant make six. The other six chairs are essentially first-come, first serve.
This morning, while Judiciary discussed S4, the first of several gun control bills sponsored by Senate Pro Tem and Judiciary Committee member Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden). A couple of Second Amendment advocates (Jim Sexton and Chris Bradley) and a Scott administration lawyer and others were seated inside.
Some press were inside, too. But at least two reporters (including Vermont Daily Chronicle) were left standing outside. Reporters are sent to cover a story. When they can’t, it’s a problem for them and for the editors who every day must decide where to allocate resources.
In-person access allows reporters to read facial and body language of everyone in the room. When a reporter asks a committee member an important-but-unanswered question after the meeting, the two at least have a shared understanding of what’s already been said.
Of course, press can watch on Zoom like everyone else. All it takes is an internet connection to see and hear all of today’s Judiciary hearing, and (on laptops) even read the transcript, on the committee’s website. Zoom is an invaluable asset. But to reporters and their editors, it’s not a replacement.
Judiciary isn’t the only committee expelling reporters due to capacity limits. Senate Natural Resources and Energy recently asked a reporter to leave, prior to discussion of a climate bill, due to full capacity. This committee already has no Republican senators, likely sources for another view of the climate legislation story. Getting kicked out of the admittedly small committee room makes the job of fully covering a complex, important story like the Affordable Heat Act / aka Clean Heat Standard more difficult.
The capacity limit creates another thorny problem: who decides who stays and goes? And what are the criteria? Reporters say it’s at the discretion of the committee chairs, who may delegate the job to their committee staff assistants.
Unless and until the Legislature resolves the room capacity problem, the more interesting and important the bill, the more likely the press will be unable to cover it in person.