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Browning prompts Statehouse scramble

Procedural move delays vote on COVID-19 bill

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BENNINGTON — The Vermont House had to scramble to find a quorum after state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, objected early Wednesday afternoon to the use of remote voting for lawmakers to approve future remote votes during the coronavirus emergency.

By calling for a quorum of at least 76 of the 150 members, Browning forced a delay until late afternoon. Around 4:30 p.m., with a quorum in chambers, the House finally approved the resolution and others and approved pending emergency COVID-19 legislation.

House leaders had earlier announced a plan to strictly limit the number of lawmakers actually in chambers in light of urging from Gov. Phil Scott and members of his administration for residents to leave their homes as little as possible to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Objected to resolution

"I did this because I find one of the three resolutions with which we began proceedings to be logically incorrect and to undermine the democratic operations of the House," Browning said in an email after she halted the session.

"One resolution declares an emergency, a second allows remote voting for committee proceedings, and a third allows remote debate and voting for House floor sessions," she said. "The third resolution has to be approved by three quarters of those members who vote remotely on it eventually."

It was the third resolution she objected to, Browning said, adding, "House leadership is asking for approval of remote voting. If you do not yet have remote voting, you cannot approve getting it with remote voting. This is circular reasoning — a tautology."

Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and others had proposed the voting format as a way keep most lawmakers away from the Statehouse to prevent the possible spread of the virus if more than a handful attended.

Some lawmakers were critical of Browning in comments to news media or on social media. Fellow Bennington-4 House District Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, said she was at home and watching the session on a live-stream when she "couldn't believe what I was seeing."

James said Browning objected on a procedural matter, and has a right to as a lawmaker, but Browning apparently "felt her personal objection was more important than the health and safety of everyone there."

Browning "stuck to her principle," James said, and "placed people at risk. I think that was arrogant."

James, who was among lawmakers who immediately drove to Montpelier in answer to a call from Johnson, said Wednesday "was the strangest day I've experienced as a legislator. It was both utterly disturbing and ultimately inspiring."

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The business of the House "got done over the objections of one outlier," James said.

James added that the purpose of the session Wednesday and its format had been thoroughly discussed in different meeting venues and had the support across all political parties, including Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and independents.

The Vermont Senate also took precautions in voting earlier on COVID-19 legislation by requiring just 17 members, enough for a quorum, and spaced the senators around the chamber. Senate leaders also encouraged those who are elderly or otherwise possibly more susceptible to the virus to remain at home.

Democratic response

Also critical of Browning was Vermont Democratic Party Chairman Terje Anderson, who said in a release Wednesday afternoon, "The decision by a single legislator to issue a quorum call means not only that passage of emergency legislation may be delayed, but that public health is further endangered. Requiring a majority of 76 legislators to be physically present in the State House is an irresponsible step that unnecessarily risks the health of our House members, State House staff, and others during a time everyone who can should be following the `stay at home' order. The Vermont Democratic Party unequivocally condemns this misguided and dangerous action during this emergency."

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Bennington County Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both Democrats, said in a joint statement, "Each senator and representative has a responsibility to represent their constituents to the best of their ability. We have to assume that Rep. Browning was doing that; we do not question her motives. However, for many of our constituents the issues contained in the bills that were up for action today in the House are tremendously important in helping them deal with this pandemic. These are truly uncharted waters and people need help now, the provisions that impact the health and welfare and economic stability of Vermonters need to pass as soon as possible, any delay is extremely disappointing."

`Her right'

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, who was at the Statehouse Wednesday, said after the House voting concluded that "Representative Browning had her right to do it," adding that some in the Legislature told her they agreed with her.

The issue for some, she said, was "you have to have the bodies here [in chambers] to approve remote voting."

Sullivan added that during the vote "there was plenty of room" in chambers to allow social distancing precautions.

She said questions also remain about how the remote voting process, likely with videoconferencing, would work well enough to allow issues to be debated with up to 150 members.

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Remote voting

Browning said Wednesday afternoon that the issues surround remote voting itself are also a concern.

"That is one of the problems," she said. "We have no such remote voting system My current understanding is that it will be some kind of joint real-time conference call, in which people can debate and vote. The voting would be through some kind of programmed process, and identities would be verified in some way."

She added, "This may or may not be the right thing to do, but it does not make sense to adopt remote voting, which you do not have, using remote voting at some point in the future using the system that you do not yet have."

Legislation passed

The House gave final approval to legislation that was also passed by the Senate. The legislation includes 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.

According to the Associated Press, House leaders had hoped to be able to pass legislation and send the bills to the governor with only a handful of lawmakers in attendance and the afternoon session was gaveled to order with about a dozen lawmakers present.

After unsuccessful efforts to get Browning to change her mind, 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 had been 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.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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