Reasons for Special Sessions

As of June 2009 there have been twenty-five special sessions of the legislature. Common reasons for a governor to call a special session include responding to economic downturns or other fiscal problems (6); federal legislation (6); disasters (4); and war (3). Some special sessions addressed more than one of these issues. In September 1941, for example, a special session called to address fiscal problems at the University of Vermont also declared that a state of “armed conflict” existed, thus triggering pay increases to Vermonters in the military. That action is the origin of belief that Vermont declared war on the Axis powers before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Initially special sessions were most commonly called in response to a disaster or war. The first special session of the legislature was called in 1857 following the statehouse fire (with the statehouse unavailable the senate met in the Washington County courthouse, while the house met in Congregational church). The second special session was called in response to the Civil War. From 1857 to 1927 there were nine special sessions; three to address disasters and three related to wars. One (1867) was called to address railroad issues and two were called in response to federal legislation.

Of the six special sessions called to respond to federal legislation, four occurred in the 1930s, primarily because of the need to pass enabling legislation to take advantage of New Deal programs.

The newest trend has been special sessions convened to address fiscal problems. Of the six special sessions called to address budget problems, five occurred from 1975 to the present.

With the caveat that special sessions rarely confine themselves to the issues enumerated by the governor, based on the reasons articulated in the proclamations, the most common reasons for calling a special session are:

  • Fiscal Problems: There were six special sessions called to respond to fiscal problems. A 1941 special session addressed fiscal problems at the University of Vermont. In 1975, 1983, and 1993 special sessions addressed state budget deficits. Special sessions in 2005 and 2009 also addressed fiscal issues including, respectively, the threat of a veto of the state budget and the veto of the budget.
  • Federal legislation: There were six sessions relating to federal legislation. The 1865 special session ratified the 13th Amendment, ending slavery. Sessions in 1891, 1933, 1934, 1935, and 1936 dealt with federal actions, the ones from the 1930s in response to New Deal initiatives. Usually these sessions passed enabling legislation in order to let Vermont participate in federal programs.
  • War: There were four sessions called in response to war and other military actions.  Frequently these sessions addressed military pay, recruitment, and supplies. In 1861 a special session addressed the presidential call for troops for the Civil War. In 1898 a special session was called in response to the Spanish-American War. A 1916 special session related to U.S. military excursions along and across the Mexican border. While not specific to military actions, the 1944 special sessions was called to address several issues, including enabling Vermont military personnel to vote.
  • Disasters: There were three sessions called in response to disasters starting with the 1857 special session called because of the statehouse fire. In 1875 a session was called because the Vermont Reform School was destroyed by fire. A special session was held in 1927 following the flood of that year.
  • Other: The remaining sessions are not as readily classified. The 1867 session addressed railroad issues; the 1940 session gave the governor authority to fill a vacancy caused by the death of U.S. Senator Ernest Gibson, Sr; the 1946 session allowed for construction of student housing at UVM for returning veterans; and the 1981 session addressed a juvenile crime bill in the wake a particularly heinous crime. The 1962 session attempted to reapportion the senate. The special session of 1964 marks, to some degree, the move toward holding adjourned sessions, which began routinely in 1968 (an adjourned session had occurred in 1959). The 1966 special session was unique since it called to accommodate a new legislature elected under a system of legislative apportionment adopted in 1965.

In a few cases the special session failed to adequately address the issues for which it was convened. The 1936 special session took up unemployment insurance because, according to the governor, the 1935 special session had failed to effectively address the issue. The 1962 special session called, in part, to address the apportionment of the senate, failed to approve a new senate apportionment plan.

This page was last updated: 2015-04-22