COVID-19 has changed so much of how we conduct our daily lives — everything from grocery shopping to how often we wash our hands. Running a legislative session will be the same. While no specific instructions have been made public on how the session will be conducted, a few glimpses of what’s behind the curtain are starting to leak out.
First and foremost, the Department of Public Safety is still working on changes to capitol security resulting from both COVID-19 and protests from earlier in the summer. Again, few specifics are known, but there is talk about limiting the number of non-legislators/staff in the building. What that number is and how it will be enforced are still to be determined.
People who are allowed in the building will likely have to undergo temperature tests and possibly quick-result COVID-19 swab testing. How often those tests must be administered is also yet to be determined. Masks may be required throughout the public portions of the building, although each legislator may be allowed to set their own policy for their own offices. The capitol is also being fitted with new anti-viral air filters.
Given those changes, we can expect changes to how the Legislature actually conducts its business. Staffing for each office has always varied from office to office. However, it’s expected that a large portion of staff will be allowed to work from home as is currently the case.
Committee rooms are being fitted with plexiglass between the legislators’ seats. But public attendance within each room will almost certainly be reduced. How each committee will take testimony is still being debated. But there will likely be a heavy reliance on electronic meetings like Zoom, Skype, etc.
Perhaps the most critical thing of all is how the members will vote and conduct business in each chamber. While nothing specific has been set, both chambers are exploring new ways for legislators to register their votes, both within the chamber and from their offices.
In addition to all these logistical issues, some more substantive things are also still up in the air — this includes the state budget. As of the writing of this, many state agencies have yet to begin the budget process. Normally, at this point prior to a session, the Legislative Budget Board staff have already held informal hearings with state agency heads over their legislative appropriations requests. This has not happened yet for many agencies. In addition, many committees have not held any hearings on their interim charges or held hearings only on some of those topics.
Being so far behind in the budget-writing process and interim hearings does not bode well for a productive session. Moreover, Lt. Gov. Patrick has reportedly told the Senate committee chairs that a number of new procedures are under consideration in the Senate. These include limiting senators to two or three bills each for the session. It also includes limiting the number of committee rooms that will be fitted with equipment to prevent COVID-19 spread in order to reduce the number of committee hearings. Whether the senators themselves would go along with such changes remains to be seen. Regardless, we will almost certainly see a significantly lower number of bills passed this session. In fact, it would not be surprising to see a significantly lower number of bills even filed this session.
Given all of this, it will be more critical than ever to have a working relationship with your legislators and their staff. That will certainly pay dividends now and later. If you don’t have a close relationship with your legislators and their staff, now is the time to start. It will be critical this session and will help secure the TTA agenda in the future. As always, let us know if you have questions or concerns.