It was a little like Old Home Week. Eleven of the 30 state Senators, none wearing a mask, gathered on the steps of the Statehouse Wednesday morning for a… live, in person PRESS CONFERENCE. Wowee.
Everyone was happy to be back together, and even happy to see a gaggle of reporters hoping to glean some actual news out of the occasion.
The cause for the gathering was a
mutual wankfest recap of the Senate’s legislative record in the past session. Hearty congratulations all around, and seldom was heard a discouraging word. I’m sure the assembled solons would love for me to recap their lengthy list of accomplishments, but, well, not my job.
They did manage to make some news amidst all the mutual back-slapping. “We’ll be back for a veto session,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, ending all doubt on that score. She said the House and Senate are likely to try to override all three (and counting) of Gov. Phil Scott’s vetoes. Also, if time allows, the Legislature may try to pass a few bills that came just short of the finish line before adjournment. Balint didn’t offer any particulars; she was due to meet with House Speaker Jill Krowinski Wednesday afternoon to plan the session, which would probably happen later this month.
I’m glad to see that the Kumbaya stuff has its limits. Legislative leadership made a point of trying to maintain a good relationship with Gov. Phil Scott during the session, and that’s fine. It’s even better that they know there’s a time for the Kumbaya to end. And Scott struck the first blow with his three questionable vetoes. Good to see leadership respond appropriately. If they can actually override all three, they’ll be sending a strong message to the fifth floor.
Other news came courtesy of Senate Institutions Committee chair Sen. Joe Benning. He talked of preparations for reopening the Statehouse for the 2022 session.
Benning said the Legislature is planning to provide video feeds of all committee hearings to overflow rooms located in the Statehouse and two nearby buildings, the Pavilion Building and the former National Life headquarters at 133 State Street. Even if the pandemic doesn’t make a comeback next winter, provision must be made for those who won’t feel comfortable in the Statehouse’s always-crowded committee rooms. (I, for one, would like to avoid the customary couple of sicknesses that always seem to follow from covering the Statehouse. I once caught a helluva flu after a packed press briefing in the Pro Tem’s tiny office.)
Balint added that Statehouse staff are “test driving swivel cams” that could zoom in on whoever’s talking. That would be incredibly useful. Otherwise, the hearings would be difficult to follow on a remote viewscreen. (I’d note that audio quality could also use some improvement.)
What wasn’t made clear was whether the video feeds would also be streamed and archived on YouTube, as they were in this year’s remote session. I thought Benning had addressed this question, but upon reviewing my notes, I found that he almost did but not quite.
What Benning did say was that “Zoom, in one form or another, is here forever” as a way to enhance access to Statehouse proceedings. He implied an internet livestream/archive, but didn’t definitively say so.
Benning also made a telling comment about the Statehouse itself. “In the short term, we will take advantage of available space in other buildings,” he said. “In the long term, the building needs to be expanded.”
There’s been preliminary talk about that prospect for several years, as virtually every nook and cranny of the building is spoken for and the demands continue to grow.
The discussion, as I recall it, involved two possibilities. One is increasing the Statehouse’s footprint, most likely by building an addition on the east side of the Statehouse. (The space is now occupied by a small handicap parking lot and the Joint Fiscal Office facilities.) There are significant problems with that; making big changes to a prominent edifice on the National Register of Historic Places is a real challenge, and it’s questionable whether enough space could be created to satisfy long-term demand within the strictures of historic preservation.
The second option is to build an entirely new legislative building somewhere in the Montpelier area. House and Senate floor sessions would continue in their current spaces, but all other activities would occur in the new building. The Statehouse would remain as a sort of living museum, which would have the advantage of reducing wear and tear on the more than 160-year-old structure and allow full year-round access to visitors.
There are three problems with that idea. First, it would be expensive. Second, a suitable site would have to be found, preferably near the Statehouse. Not a lot of available real estate around there. And third, Vermont does love its traditions. I’m sure many would be upset at the prospect of legislative business no longer happening in the hallowed halls where, on a quiet day, you can almost hear the faint echo of George Aiken’s footfalls.
But I digress, hopefully in an informative fashion. The immediate takeaway is that the Legislature will be meeting in person next year, and plans are being made to provide remote access to all hearings and floor sessions. That’s good news.