2020 legislative session: Act I
Vermont’s 2020 legislative session has been one for the record books. Back when we convened in January, no one would have guessed that the session would stretch into peak foliage season. Certainly no one could have envisioned a shuttered State House with legislators working remotely by Zoom from kitchen tables and home offices across Vermont. Not since 1857, when the second Vermont State House was destroyed by fire, has the General Assembly been forced to conduct business outside of the chamber for months on end.
The 2020 legislative session unfolded in three acts. The first act was in the pre-COVID-19 era from January through March 13th. While the legislative work of this pre-pandemic time seems as if from another age, significant work was accomplished foreshadowing the crisis-driven work the legislature undertook in Acts II and III of this year’s session.
The legislature passed a paid family leave insurance bill to allow employees paid time off to care for a new child or an ill family member. By paying an insurance premium of 0.2% of wages, a worker could get about $900/week of wage replacement when taking up to eight weeks to provide that care. The Governor vetoed the bill with the House failing to override that veto by a single vote. I think back on how the public health crisis of the last five months might have been different if VT had a paid family leave program like every other industrialized country in the world. Instead, Vermont continues to force workers to choose between a paycheck and caring for a family member.
We accelerated the increase in Vermont’s minimum wage to $12.55 by 2022 to put more money in the pockets of low-wage workers, the majority of whom are women. The Governor also vetoed this bill but was overridden by the House and Senate. In recent months we have come to realize even more fully how essential is the work of the low-wage Vermonters who will benefit from this bill.
The VT House passed the Global Warming Solutions Act, H.688, by a 105-37 tri-partisan majority with support from every Independent in the chamber. I was the primary bill sponsor and presented the bill to the House on February 20th. In addition to elevating VT’s greenhouse gas reduction “goals” to statutory requirements, the bill acknowledged that our state has no coherent strategy to accomplish this objective, nor a path to protect Vermonters from the natural and economic disasters that climate change will inflict. A framework for building that plan is central to H.688.
As the legislature returned to the State House from Town Meeting and prepared to pass the state’s annual budget in mid-March, the first case of the coronavirus was diagnosed in southern Vermont. On the morning of March 12th, the chairs of the 14 House committees met with the House Speaker to determine what emergency legislation we needed to pass in the next 24-hours in the event we were unable to convene for several weeks. In anticipation of the impending public health emergency, the House approved several bills expanding healthcare access and telehealth insurance coverage, and allowing the chamber to continue its legislative work remotely.
Uncertain when or how the legislature would next meet, the House abruptly adjourned on Friday, March 13th ending Act I of the 2020 legislative session.