0326 Online Virus Outbreak-Vermont Legislature

Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, left, wears a mask while talking to a lawmaker in the Vermont house chamber, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at the Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt. The House was working to pass measures designed to help the state respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — House members from across Vermont descended on the Statehouse Wednesday to give final approval to a series of measures designed to help the state respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

House leaders had hoped to be able to hold the Wednesday session with only a handful of lawmakers present, and the afternoon session was first gaveled to order with only about a dozen lawmakers present, far short of the 76 needed for a quorum in the 150-member chamber.

House leaders knew the mechanism, designed to pass the legislation without filling the Statehouse with lawmakers and risking transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, wouldn't work if any member asked for a quorum.

The effort failed when Democratic Rep. Cynthia Browning asked if there was quorum of lawmakers. Outside the House chamber during a break she told reporters she objected to a resolution that would allow the House to vote remotely to set up a system that would allow for remote votes during the ongoing public health crisis.

She said the House needed to have a physical quorum to take such a vote.

“I understand the severity of the situation we are in," she said. “But, again, if you start cutting corners on parliamentary procedures and democratic processes in an emergency, you will very quickly find that you’ve thrown something overboard that you can’t get back.”

After unsuccessful efforts to get Browning to change her mind, Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson sent an email to all the members of the House asking those who could to travel to Montpelier for the vote.

Johnson said all members of the House were aware of the plan that was being set up to vote with only a handful of lawmakers present.

While Johnson said Browning had the right to make the quorum call, Johnson felt Browning's decision threatened the health of everyone at the Statehouse and beyond because lawmakers from across the state would be gathering in Montpelier and then returning to their communities, potentially spreading the virus.

"I do believe this is principle over public health," Johnson said while waiting for lawmakers to reach Montpelier. “And for me, the safety of Vermonters is a paramount importance here.”

Lawmakers suspended the rules so members didn't need to sit in their assigned seats and they could spread out throughout the chamber in an attempt to maintain the 6-foot distance between them.

About two hours after Johnson sent an email to members asking them to travel to Montpelier the session was gaveled to order.

All the measures were passed by a series of voice votes in less than 15 minutes.

The legislation approved by the House included provisions to make sure anyone who loses their job or has to leave one to care for someone who is ill will be eligible for unemployment benefits; make it possible for state and local elections to go forward later in the year; and temporary modification of the state's open meeting laws so local government can function remotely.

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