By Guy Page
The Vermont Legislature Joint Rules Committee decided late this afternoon to ask staffers to prepare a resolution for its review tomorrow to recess the Legislature and close the State House for a week due to the coronavirus.
If adopted, a weeklong recess would be an appropriate response to a virus characterized by a dangerous delay between infection and showing of symptoms. “It’s because of the contagion, and the four-day incubation period,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson explained. “When we talk to other states that are in much more dire situations than ours, the one thing we hear is, ‘we wish we had acted sooner.’”
The final decision is likely to be made when Joint Rules meets tomorrow meeting at 8:30 AM in Room 10. If it occurs, the weeklong recess — possibly next week but also possibly in a following week — could be extended if necessary. The body also could be brought back if necessary to approve federal emergency spending. The Joint Rules Committee is comprised of Sen. Richard Mazza, Sen. Joe Benning, Rep. Patti McCoy, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe, Sen. Becca Balint, Rep. Jill Krowinski, and Rep. Emily Long.
The recess also would give the State House cleaning crew an opportunity to thoroughly clean the facility. The Health Department has not make a recommendation about closing the State House.
Wednesday, the Joint Rules Committee decided to cancel any non-essential meetings such as receptions, concerts, and other gatherings not directly related to legislation action and staff support. (It was noted however that that this information, although shared in an email this morning, has not been publicly communicated to all visitors.)
Police Chief Matt Romei was asked yesterday if an effective public screening process could be implemented. Today Romei said the four-day delay between contagion and symptoms makes any practical screening tool ineffective. Other police chiefs and public health organizations are recommending social distancing instead of screening, he said. He noted that the U.S. Capitol has restricted access to visitors.
Progress on essential legislation would have some bearing on which week the proposed recess would fall. “I don’t have a specific list (of bills) that we could get done tomorrow,” Johnson said. However, the appropriations and transportation bills could be approved by the House by the end of next week – but then must go through the Senate.
In a Senate meeting following the Joint Rules Committee meeting, Sen. John Rodgers expressed concern that a shutdown could lead to a chain reaction could lead to multiple shutdowns of businesses and other institutions, making it harder for people to earn paychecks to pay for the mortgage, he said. Sen. Ann Cummings echoed this concern. Other senators expressed a similar desire to continue doing the work of the Legislature.
Senate refuses House changes to commercial cannabis, wants conference committee
S54, commercial cannabis, was approved by the House Feb. 26. The Senate did not concur with the changes made by the House, and a conference committee was established today. Sens. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) and Jeanette White (D-Windham) were appointed to represent the Senate. Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) said the House will address the S54 conference committee issue tomorrow.
Differences in the House and Senate versions of S54 include whether towns will be required to “opt in” before allowing commercial cannabis, prevention spending, municipal taxation, extent of permissable advertising, composition of the state cannabis regulatory apparatus, and roadside impairment testing.
Local taxation could prove to be a sticking point. The Senate bill’s two percent local tax was removed by the House. “There will be no way to to assess a local cannabis tax; the state will not share any of the generated revenue with towns and cities,” The Vermont League of Cities and Towns reported Feb. 28.
A new study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that even when sober, chronic cannabis users are more dangerous drivers compared to non-users. The problem is most acute with cannabis users who became heavy users before age 16. “Scientists believe that smoking cannabis at an yearly age causes irreparable changes to the brain, causing someone to be more aggressive in their decision making,” according to a report in the Vermont Associated General Contractor’s January-February trade magazine.
Coronavirus public safety challenge: continuity of service
The biggest challenge likely to face Vermont’s public safety workers (police, firefighters, EMTs) will be providing continuity of service if workers become ill or are confined to isolation due to exposure to the virus, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said today.
Schirling and Vermont State Police leader Matt Birmingham were waiting in a Senate committee room for a hearing to begin when approached by this reporter. They both said continuity of service is likely to be the greatest challenge. To date, however, no public safety workers have been lost to service due to the coronavirus, Schirling said.
Bear hound bill killed by sponsor
S.321, a miscellaneous wildlife bill, was withdrawn by its sponsor, Alice Nitka, on the floor of the Senate yesterday. She said that in the committee process it had become a bill that she no longer supports, in particular because of a controversial clause effectively banning the use of dogs to hunt bears.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.