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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Vermont Lawmakers Plan Remote Start to Legislative Session

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2020 at 2:01 PM

Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • Lawmakers observing social distancing protocols in the Vermont Senate chamber in March
Updated at 3:42 p.m.

A recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Vermont has prompted state legislators to defer plans to hold at least a portion of the 2021 legislative session in person.

Members of the House Rules Committee voted last week for the chamber to meet remotely through January, and Senate leaders indicated on Tuesday that they would follow suit.

During a meeting of the legislature's Joint Rules Committee, which includes leaders of both bodies, lawmakers also agreed on Tuesday to scale back some of the opening ceremonies that typically mark the start of the two-year biennium — including the swearing-in of constitutional officers and the governor's inaugural address.

Though many details have yet to be worked out, the House currently plans to convene on January 6 at the Barre Municipal Auditorium. Legislators will be sworn in, elect a new speaker and clerk, and approve the rules of the House. The venue was chosen because it is among the largest in the state and can safely accommodate all 150 members of the House, even while social distancing. Nevertheless, members will be given the opportunity to participate remotely, outgoing House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said at Tuesday's meeting.

The 30-member Senate plans to meet in person at the Statehouse on the same day, according to outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden). Members will cycle through the Senate chamber to be sworn in and to elect their own officers.

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Monday, November 23, 2020

Republicans Choose Brock as Senate Minority Leader

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 7:21 PM

  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • Sen. Randy Brock
Vermont Senate Republicans have chosen Sen. Randy Brock (R/D-Franklin) to lead the caucus during the upcoming biennium.

The unanimous vote last Thursday means that Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who’s served as minority leader for seven of the last eight years, will hand over control on January 6, after new legislators are sworn in. Republicans gained one seat in November’s elections, growing the caucus to seven in the 30-member Senate.

Brock said his goal in the position is “to continue having our voices be part of the debate.

“One of the beauties of the Senate in Vermont is that we talk, and we listen to each other,” Brock said. “We don’t always agree, but we’re never disagreeable. And I think that is really a testament to how the body works. We do in fact deliberate, and ideas from all sides are typically welcomed.”

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Sunday, November 22, 2020

In Coming Session, Women Will Dominate Vermont Senate Leadership

Posted By on Sun, Nov 22, 2020 at 2:19 PM

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Becca Balint
Democratic Vermont senators on Sunday chose women for key leadership posts for the upcoming legislative session, a historic shift that was celebrated by senators and tempered by the daunting task before them.

During a caucus vote Sunday morning, Sen. Becca Balint (D-Windham) won nomination to be Senate president pro tempore. If confirmed in January, the mother of two from Brattleboro would be the first woman and the first openly gay lawmaker to hold the post.

Balint, 47, said little about those firsts and instead focused on the challenges ahead, for which she said she and her colleagues will need to “bring our A games” to address the “Herculean task” ahead.

“Our top priority this session will be to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, while also trying to shift the system and policies to better address Vermonters’ needs going forward,” Balint said.

Balint will succeed Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P- Chittenden), who did not seek reelection to the Senate and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor. Her nomination had been assured for weeks.

Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said Balint was “absolutely the best candidate for the job,” praising her “warmth, energy and strategic intelligence.”

Balint's bid for pro tem opened up her job as majority leader, a position that often is an indicator of upward political mobility. It was less clear prior to Sunday how that contest would shake out.
Sen. Alison Clarkson - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • Sen. Alison Clarkson
Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D- Chittenden) had expressed interest in the post and lined up several supporters. But he identifies as a Progressive first and a Democrat second. That set off some grumbling in the caucus about whether it was wise to have him leading the Democrats.

"I think it's very important to have a Democrat as the majority leader," Sen. Alison Clarkson (D-Windsor) told Seven Days as she rounded up votes to be leader herself last week. "This is the majority party."

Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) had also expressed interest, and had the support of his seatmate, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), and others. But when Campion withdrew last week, Democrats who wanted a party loyalist coalesced around Clarkson, 65.

The Harvard University-educated mother of two and former Broadway theater producer urged her colleagues to think of the nation’s motto, e pluribus unum — out of many, one — as the “formula for our success” in state government

“My job will be listening to each of you, your needs and priorities, to coordinate those with our work to help our caucus advance our policy priorities and shared vision,” Clarkson said after her unanimous selection. “Together we can accomplish great things.”

Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) praised Clarkson’s organizational skills, natural leadership and relentless energy, likening her to the “Energizer bunny.”

“Alison is a very present personality,” McCormack said. “In any room where she is, eyes turn to Alison.”

The third woman chosen Sunday for a leadership post was Sen. Cheryl Hooker (D/P-Rutland), who was named whip. Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) recalled with awe how Hooker, 70, traveled to Montpelier in a blizzard after helping her husband through a medical crisis.

“Having someone who is calm and fair and good-humored as our assistant majority leader, I think, is incredibly important,” she said.

Senators also opted to keep some institutional knowledge handy by leaving Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) in a key leadership role on the Committee on Committees.

The influential three-member panel makes committee assignments. The two other members will be the pro tem, Balint, and the new lieutenant governor, Democrat Molly Gray.

Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), noting that House Democrats had selected a woman, Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), to be speaker, hailed the changes.

“It’s really a new day, and a new form of leadership,” Pollina said. I’m really looking forward to being part of a Senate and a legislature that is primarily directed by women.”

Correction, November 24, 2020: Anthony Pollina's party affiliation was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Recount Confirms Johnson's Loss; Krowinski Likely Next House Speaker

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2020 at 8:04 PM

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • House Speaker Mitzi Johnson
A recount Friday confirmed that Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) has lost the seat she’s held for 18 years to Republican Michael Morgan of Milton in the highest profile upset this election cycle.

The result heralds a new beginning for the House, as Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) is poised to become the chamber’s next speaker. Johnson has held the speakership for the last four years.

Official election results for the two-seat Grand Isle-Chittenden district showed Johnson in third place, 20 votes short of Morgan’s 2,627 votes. Morgan's margin of victory increased by one vote after Friday's eight-hour recount at the North Hero Community Hall, according to results from Grand Isle County Clerk Susan Bohannon.

Morgan’s uncle, Rep. Leland Morgan (R-Milton), was the top vote-getter with 2,778 votes after the recount, an increase of two votes; Democrat Andy Julow earned 2,405, one vote more than before the recount.

Despite her loss, Johnson said this election’s record-breaking turnout earned her more votes than ever before. She said the coronavirus pandemic prevented her from running a typical campaign. For one, she didn’t knock on doors in the district, which usually afforded her the chance to hear from voters directly — and clear up any misconceptions about her record.

“Had I been able to do that, I easily could have flipped 12 votes,” she said. This year, she had to focus on leading the House through the pandemic.

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Thursday, November 19, 2020

More Than 35,000 Vermont Workers Will Get Hazard Pay

Posted By on Thu, Nov 19, 2020 at 12:28 AM

From left: Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Sen. Tim Ashe and Sen. Chris Pearson at a press conference last week - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • From left: Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Sen. Tim Ashe and Sen. Chris Pearson at a press conference last week

Roughly 35,600 frontline workers in Vermont will get hazard pay for filling essential roles during the pandemic, Finance Commissioner Mike Pieciak said Wednesday evening, hours after the extended deadline for companies to apply for a final round of grants passed.

Legislators allocated the aid from federal CARES Act funds, saying that people who put themselves at risk while others hunkered down at home deserve the money.

An initial round of grants targeted health care workers; a more expansive round that concluded Wednesday included businesses such as retailers, childcare facilities and pharmacies.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Copeland Hanzas Drops Bid for House Speaker, Endorses Krowinski

Posted By on Wed, Nov 18, 2020 at 2:50 PM

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) has exited the race for speaker of the Vermont House, likely clearing the path for Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) to lead the chamber in January.

Days after Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) lost her House seat this month, Copeland Hanzas became the first candidate to declare her interest in the speakership and began lobbying colleagues for support.

"Through those conversations it became clear to me that Jill Krowinski is very well respected and that many members of the House see her ascendancy to the speakership as a logical next step," Copeland Hanzas said. "I'm quite certain she will be a fine speaker, and I'm happy to support her."

In addition to Krowinski, at least one other candidate remains in the running. Rep. Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock), a two-term moderate from the Upper Valley, said he's continuing to seek support for his candidacy, but he acknowledged that he was unlikely to prevail. "It's still possible, but the odds are long," he said.

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Vermont's Hospitality Industry to Get $75 Million in Aid

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 5:43 PM

Church Street Marketplace earlier this year - FILE: LUKE AWTRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Luke Awtry ©️ Seven Days
  • Church Street Marketplace earlier this year
Vermont lawmakers approved $75 million in additional relief for the state’s hospitality industry over the weekend as surging COVID-19 cases dimmed the state's winter business prospects.

Restaurants, bars and lodging businesses were already among the businesses eligible for grants of up to $300,000 under a $76 million economic recovery program that the legislature approved over the summer.

But officials feared the hospitality industry, as it faces new restrictions and an uncertain holiday season, needed an additional lifeline, said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development.

“It’s really going to be hard for them to get through the winter, and we just thought this was the best way to help them survive,” Goldstein said Monday.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

As Deadline Looms, Senators Pressure Businesses to Apply for Hazard Pay

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2020 at 8:29 PM

From left: Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Sen. Tim Ashe and Sen. Chris Pearson - PAUL HEINTZ ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Paul Heintz ©️ Seven Days
  • From left: Sen. Michael Sirotkin, Sen. Tim Ashe and Sen. Chris Pearson
A trio of state senators on Thursday urged some of the largest businesses in Vermont to help their employees obtain cash payments for working during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic.

The state's Frontline Employees Hazard Pay Grant Program provides up to $2,000 to those who worked in certain fields during a two-month period from March to May and earned less than $25 an hour. In order for employees to qualify for the program, however, employers must apply and identify them.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday afternoon outside a CVS Pharmacy in downtown Burlington, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) criticized businesses that had yet to do so. "There have been some employers who have not stepped up," he said.

Ashe, who was joined by Sen. Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) and Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden), called out eight businesses in particular that he said had not yet applied. Thousands of Vermonters could miss out on payments, Ashe said, "because someone somewhere in a far-off office is unwilling to take literally a few minutes of administrative time to verify which employees are eligible."

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Monday, November 9, 2020

Kimbell to Seek Speakership, Pledging to Represent Rural Vermont

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2020 at 1:37 PM

  • Courtesy of the Vermont House
  • Rep. Charlie Kimbell
The race to replace Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) as speaker of the Vermont House has expanded.

Rep. Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock) said Monday that he's running in order to "bring a rural voice" to the office. A second-term moderate from the Upper Valley, he characterized himself as a more unifying — and less partisan — figure than two other declared candidates: Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), respectively the current and former House majority leaders.

"The speaker's role is different than that of majority leader," Kimbell said. "The speaker's role is to be representative of all members of the House and to build consensus and coalitions with all the people who are there."

The speaker's job is up for grabs following Johnson's unexpected defeat last week. Though Johnson has requested a recount, Copeland Hanzas and Krowinski both expressed their interest in the job last Friday. The Democratic caucus is expected to nominate a candidate for speaker the first weekend of December; the full House is likely to formally approve the choice when the legislature convenes in January.

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Friday, November 6, 2020

Copeland Hanzas, Krowinski to Seek Speakership if Johnson’s Defeat Stands

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2020 at 11:12 AM

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas
Updated at 11:48 a.m.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) on Friday became the first member of the Vermont House to publicly express interest in succeeding House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) as leader of the chamber. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), followed suit.

Johnson, who served two terms as speaker, lost her reelection race by 18 votes on Tuesday. She has requested a recount.

In a statement to reporters Friday morning, Copeland Hanzas said she supported Johnson’s decision to seek a recount. "If, after the recount, we need to elect a new Speaker of the House, I will likely step forward to run for Speaker," she added.

Krowinski had previously declined to comment on her intentions, citing ongoing uncertainty around Johnson’s electoral fate. But reached by phone later Friday morning, she confirmed that she, too, would seek the speakership if the recount did not reverse the results.

“First, I want to reiterate that I am fully behind the speaker in helping her through the recount and hope the results change,” Krowinski said. “If the results do stay the same, I will be the contingency candidate to run for speaker, and I look forward to talking with the Democratic caucus members and members of the [House] about what their goals and priorities are.”

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