The NCSL Blog

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By Mari Henderson

"Sesame" Street used to do a segment called “Word of the Day” where Elmo, along with a celebrity, taught kids a new word and its meaning. Well, since the beginning of the pandemic, "flexibility" has been the key word every day in state legislatures.

Neale Lunderville of Vermont Gas Systems testifies remotely before the House Committee on Energy and Technology at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, Jan. 26. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDiggerDespite living under constantly changing circumstances for nearly two years, legislatures are still learning the best ways to adapt. In predicting what legislative life will look like in 2022, we can expect legislatures to use precedent as a guide, but also foresee them trying to find a way to return to normal while balancing the health and safety of members, staff and the public.

Several legislatures have implemented the same remote or hybrid style of meetings they used in 2021 as a response to the prevalence of the omicron variant, which coincided with the start of session in many state capitols. In some of these legislatures, the ultimate goal is to meet in person as soon as possible.

For example, the Vermont Senate will operate completely remotely until late February, but the Senate rules committee is meeting weekly to monitor the situation. Other chambers, including the Washington Senate and Kentucky House, have created temporary rules allowing members who test positive to participate remotely.

One of the most popular adaptations made since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic was to let constituents testify remotely in committees, a trend that appears to have staying power, even in chambers that require the physical presence of legislators. The New Mexico House and both chambers in Maryland and Delaware have implemented policies allowing committee meetings to meet remotely despite all having some form of in-person floor procedure. Committee chairs may authorize remote voting procedures for committee members via rule in the Kentucky House and House operating procedure in the Georgia House.

Amid all of this, some chambers are meeting at least partially in person. Both chambers in Delaware have opted to limit the amount of time in person in chamber by limiting the number of days members are required to be on the floor. The New Hampshire House has met in a nearby exposition center while the Senate meets in the House chambers.

Chambers that are meeting in person have also begun implementing various safety protocols in their capitols, including mask, vaccine or testing requirements for different constituencies as well as limiting guided tours or access to the capitol.

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past 22 months, it’s just how flexible legislatures can be. Chambers across the country have proved how much they can bend, a precedent that makes adaptation to strenuous conditions a lot easier. In the coming months, NCSL expects to see even more adjustments and will continue to monitor those changes throughout this year. When it comes to learning the true meaning of "flexibility," Elmo would be proud.

Mari Henderson is a policy specialist in NCSL's Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.