Vermont Legislature convenes for largely remote session

The Vermont Legislature convened Wednesday on the first day of the 2021 session, electing leaders for both the House and the Senate with few lawmakers at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

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In the Senate, Democratic Sen. Becca Balint, of Windham County, was chosen as the Senate’s first woman president pro tempore. She is also the first openly gay person to hold the post.

In the House, Burlington Democratic Rep. Jill Krowinski was elected speaker of the House.

Both legislative leaders said they expected much of their legislative time during the session, which in years without a pandemic typically run until May or June, will be to continue to help Vermont cope with the human and financial challenges created by the pandemic.

“The pandemic has upended so much of the ways in which we do our work,” Balint said in brief remarks after being sworn in as pro tem. “Zoom used to be such a fun word, one that conjures of joyful dashes, not tedious slogs.”

Krowinski said they must focus on finding a path forward that leaves no one behind.

“This virus has demonstrated the gaps in services Vermonters rely on, whether its access to broadband, childcare or housing, or mental health supports, we’ve seen too many Vermonters struggling to balance their needs,” Krowinski said in her remarks from the podium of the nearly empty House chamber.

Extending the practice that began last year, much of the 2021 session is going to be held remotely, at least for the first two months while lawmakers watch the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

There were 19 members of the Senate present on Wednesday, a quorum of the 30-member body, but most future sessions are expected to be held remotely.

On Thursday, Republican Gov. Phil Scott will be sworn in for his third term. In another break from tradition, Scott’s inaugural address will be presented remotely on Thursday evening rather than from the House chamber immediately after he is sworn in.

Also Thursday, Lt. Gov.-elect Molly Gray, a Democratic newcomer to the Statehouse, will take the oath of office. Among her first duties will to preside over a remote joint session of the House and Senate.

Once the formalities of kicking off the session are over lawmakers will get down to work.

Some committee meetings are expected Thursday afternoon. By Friday, lawmakers will be focused on crafting legislation.