MONTPELIER -- State lawmakers, following some tense times on the House floor recently and with more tough issues to come, took some time out Tuesday to get training in the proper decorum during debates.
The first assistant House clerk, William MaGill, led a nearly full House through an hour-long question-and-answer session on the finer points of behavior in the legislative chamber. Speaker Shap Smith had demanded that members attend.
Among the rules MaGill covered: Members interrogating one another must address their questions through the speaker; if you stand and walk, don’t cross between the member who is speaking and the speaker; never name a person or question another member’s motives.
Smith, explaining the decision to host the session three months into the first year of the two-year legislative biennium, said it’s helpful to have "a reminder about decorum."
"We’re coming toward the end of the session," Smith said. "People get tired. Tempers fray."
He said he especially wanted lawmakers to hear some words of caution as they face in the coming weeks debates on tough issues, including physician-assisted suicide and marijuana decriminalization.
Other lawmakers said the session came in reaction to some heated debate on the House floor March 28, when lawmakers were discussing the 2014 budget. The House spent much of the day on the floor and broke for dinner before returning in the evening.
Evening debates can be problematic, said Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton and the House minority leader, especially when, "during dinner, people have a drink or two."
"That night," he said, "there was some uneasiness on all sides."
That’s reflected in the House Journal, the official record of activities in the chamber, for that date.
Members are invited to explain their votes after roll calls and have those remarks published in the journal for posterity. Rep. Lynn Batchelor, R-Derby, said in one such vote explanation: "I am surprised and disappointed that Washington, D.C., politics has come to the state of Vermont."
She was not alone in complaining about the tenor of the budget debate. Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said it had "devolved into tea party political rhetoric." She said the House should follow the example of Brattleboro, which recently held a 13.5-hour town meeting at which tough local financial issues were discussed in a civil and productive manner.
Returning late from dinner, Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, asked for permission to cast a vote in a roll call out of turn.
"I apologize for being late," she said. "I was at the Brattleboro town meeting."
Komline said she was trying to be funny and did not intend to mock her House colleague. But some saw it that way, including Stuart, who sought an apology.
Komline later apologized to Smith but not to Stuart.
One House rule says that during interrogations, when members get to question each other through the speaker, they should not ask questions to which they already know the answers.
Some members appeared to be doing just that in their questions to MaGill, mainly veterans trying to emphasize a point about proper legislative behavior to their younger colleagues. Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said she frequently is annoyed that permitted clapping in the House sometimes devolves into impermissible whistling and cheering.
"Can I ask a question I know the answer to?" she asked. "Is there any acceptable means of recognition other than clapping?"