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Speaker removes Browning from committee

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ARLINGTON — Rep. Cynthia Browning, who has frequently disagreed with the Democratic House leadership on key issues, was removed Thursday from the Committee on Ways and Means by Speaker Mitzi Johnson.

The Speaker announced the action in a notice to House members one day after Browning called for a quorum during a sparsely attended session the House leadership had planned to better comply with efforts to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus state of emergency. Only about a dozen members were in chambers at the time.

As any member can call for a quorum, meaning at least 76 of the 150 House members, Johnson then issued a call to lawmakers, who drove to the Statehouse to achieve a narrow quorum about three hours later.

In her notice Thursday, Johnson said in part, "In addition to an understanding of tax policy, committee members must work well with others towards a common purpose, question others respectfully, exercise careful judgement and accept that democracy demands finding value in others' concerns and priorities, not just their own position. I cannot stress enough how critical this is for legislative responsiveness to this unprecedented time. Therefore, under the authority of the Speaker to appoint committees, I am removing Representative Browning from the Committee on Ways and Means and appointing Representative Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro to serve on that committee effective immediately."

Johnson added, "Yesterday's floor session was critical in getting help to Vermonters and establishing a way for the Legislature to lead through this crisis. We designed a plan to pass legislation in a way that reduced the community spread of COVID-19. A procedural motion forced 100 people to gather against [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations, less than 24 hours after the Governor's stay-at-home order, and at a time when infection rates are increasing exponentially in Vermont. Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Independents had consensus, transparency and opportunities for engagement leading up to yesterday. Yet one member unnecessarily required every other member to choose between their duty to Vermont and the health and safety of their communities, peers, and loved ones at home. Being a legislator requires that we know the rules. True public service requires the wisdom to know when to use them. Yesterday's quorum call was not wise."

`Freedom of speech'

"I believe that Speaker Johnson has the power to alter committee assignments as she chooses," Browning responded Thursday in an email. "In this case she has chosen to remove me from House Ways and Means because I exercised my right as a representative to call for a quorum during a session of the House. While she has the power to do this, I think it is regrettable that she has chosen to do it to punish me for exercising that right."

She added, "Freedom of speech and the right of independent action, thought, or voting are always under pressure in the House, because the party leadership rewards loyalty above all else. So anyone who puts loyalty to their principles, their judgement, and their constituents above loyalty to party or person inevitably can have problems."

Earlier on Thursday, Browning expanded on her earlier stated reasons for calling for a quorum, saying, "So, what I was trying to do was to stop this Resolution 18 that sets up a system of remote house sessions and remote voting, which right there has some problems, but even worse, the resolution has to be ratified by three-fourths of those voting remotely, which we do not have.

"If Speaker Johnson had dropped consideration of that resolution," Browning continued, "she could have proceeded to pass the other bills and resolutions without calling people in. However, she really wants to have the remote voting, so she called in the quorum. That is on her."

The resolution passed anyway, Browning noted, "and I am not sure I made my point well. We will see how this remote system works out."

Browning, who said in early March that she intends to challenge Johnson for the Speaker's post next year, said Thursday that "it is important to note that I did not call members into the House yesterday — she [Johnson] did. I would have dropped my quorum call if she had deferred consideration of H.R. 18 about ratifying the use of an unknown system for remote sessions and remote voting by remote voting that we do not have."

Called to the Statehouse

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House members had to scramble to create a quorum after Browning objected early Wednesday afternoon to the use of remote voting for lawmakers to approve future remote votes during the coronavirus emergency and called for a quorum.

That resulted in a delay until just after 4:30 p.m., when, with a quorum in chambers, the House approved that resolution and others and approved pending emergency COVID-19 legislation.

House leaders had announced a plan to 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.

Browning said on Wednesday afternoon, "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," 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."

Some lawmakers were sharply critical of Browning in comments to media or on social media.

Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, who like Browning represents the two-seat Bennington-4 House district, was one of those lawmakers who drove to Montpelier after Johnson issued the call.

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

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

James, like Johnson, maintained that that the purpose of the session Wednesday and its format had been thoroughly discussed and had support across all political parties.

The Vermont Senate took its own precautions in voting earlier on the COVID-19 legislation by requiring only 17 members, just enough for a quorum, in chambers. Senate leaders had also encouraged those who are elderly or otherwise more susceptible to the virus to remain at home.

Bennington County Democratic Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both Democrats, said in a joint statement issued Thursday, "The more we learn of what happened yesterday, the more disappointed we are with Rep. Browning's actions. She jeopardized the health of her community and her colleagues. Actions have consequences and those actions left our county without a legislator on the powerful House tax committee. All of this might have been avoided by contacting the Speaker ahead of time. Sadly health and safety was risked for what purpose? Vermonters expect and deserve better."

Remote voting

Browning said on Wednesday afternoon that the issues surrounding remote voting itself are a major 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."

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During a phone interview Thursday, Johnson said the system available to lawmakers for remote voting is the Everbridge system used by the Capitol Police. "There are ways to vote with it and confirm who is doing the voting," she said.

The Speaker acknowledged some apprehension among House members, and that there was more comfort in rolling it out first for small groups and House committees so members could practice and become familiar. The rapid growth of COVID-19 cases, and the deaths of Vermonters from the virus, made that impractical, she said.

"Because of community spread we were in a Catch-22, where we needed to gather everybody to change the rules on remote voting, but people weren't ready yet." she said. "But if waited two weeks it would be even harder — there would be that many more cases in Vermont, and that much more danger."

Outreach to members on the voting plan took place Monday afternoon and evening, with party leaders reaching out to all 150 members. The final language was worked out Tuesday evening and distributed to the membership, Johnson said.

"Every member got a phone call talking through these things," Johnson said.

When leadership reached out to Browning, Johnson said, "At that point, she wasn't super comfortable with the idea of remote voting and thinking she might speak against it. But she never said, "I'm going to call a quorum" ... she never said how [she] thought this could be improved. She never reached out to me. Never texted or emailed. "

Browning said on Thursday, "I told someone in leadership on Monday that I did not support what they were doing,

but no one got back to me."

Even when they disagreed on issues, Johnson said, she would have friendly discussions with Browning, but those ended around the time of the House's override vote on raising the minimum wage in Vermont.

"She's expressed extreme displeasure but never spoken to me individually, never said 'here are things you've done that crossed the line.," Johnson said of Browning. She also said Browning could reach out to other members of leadership, or write an email.

New England Newspapers Vermont Engagement and Opinion editor Greg Sukiennik contributed to this report.

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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