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The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison. The pandemic has made this a year of adaptation, adjustment and experimentation for legislatures nationwide.

Back to the Future: The Past Year Will Guide Planning for 2021 Sessions

By Natalie Wood | Nov. 6, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

This has been a year of adaptation, adjustment and experimentation for legislatures. Legislating via Zoom, holding session in sports venues and convention centers, debating bills through plexiglass, and transitioning an entire legislative staff office to a remote work environment in one weekend might have seemed inconceivable last January. Yet these changes, and more, were spurred by the pandemic.

So, what to expect for 2021? There are 99 ways to run a legislative chamber in “ordinary times” and this maxim will hold true next year. Constitutional provisions, chamber rules, statutes, traditions, customs, information technology and physical space in capitol complexes will affect the game plan. This week’s election results and leadership changes will have a big impact on legislative life in 2021, too. And policies and procedures aimed at ensuring the health and safety of members, staff and the public will also be top of mind.

But legislatures also like to rely on precedent, and 2020 has provided some preparation for the coming year.

Session Planning Underway

Some legislatures are in the midst of session planning using standing, select or interim legislative committees to collect information, get expertise and weigh options (check out Indiana, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming for examples). Many full-time legislatures, such as Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have regularly met throughout the pandemic.

It’s very possible they could carry forward the same operational strategies into the next year. Twenty-two state legislatures and three territories have held special sessions in 2020, in some cases more than once. Interim hearings and meetings also took place this summer and fall. Members and staff have learned lessons from these experiences—both on what worked in their chambers and on what didn’t.

If the past year is any indication, remote voting and participation both on the floor and in committee will be a tool for some legislatures moving into 2021. Since March, in at least 25 legislatures, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands, one chamber or both has adopted rules to allow for this. At least one chamber in 25 legislatures has changed its rules to allow remote participation. In other states, chamber rules or statutes may have already authorized remote committee meetings as well. There hasn’t been one uniform way that chambers have conducted their proceedings, but there are some themes:

  • Meeting and voting completely via virtual platforms like Zoom or Teams.
  • Using a proxy vote system.
  • Allowing members to be physically present in a chamber or committee room while other members participate virtually.
  • Offering live webcasts or television broadcasts of legislative floor proceedings. (This is available in all 50 state legislatures, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.) Many are archiving proceedings as well.

In most cases, these rule changes are time-bound, put into place for the current legislature, tied to an emergency or to the pandemic specifically. Stay tuned to see if, or how, this option is adopted in 2021.

Safety Protocols Top of Mind

In the coming year, many states, though not all, will likely encourage the public to use virtual participation strategies when providing input to or observing the legislative process. NCSL has compiled information from about 30 legislatures regarding remote committee operations in the past eight months. Strategies for constituent engagement have varied but there are some commonalities, such as receiving online testimony or using request-to-speak forms, listing email addresses of members, and providing access through teleconference or virtual meeting platforms. Streamed and archived committee proceedings are on the rise, too.

In some states, remote participation by members is not an option due to legal or constitutional issues. Some capitols will be open with sessions held in person, or chambers may meet in person but in a location other than the capitol to allow for social distancing, as was the case in Arkansas, Illinois, New Hampshire and Virginia over the past year. The Indiana House, for example, may opt to hold its coming session in the Indiana Government Center South building, which opened to the public in 1888 and offers larger meeting spaces and access via tunnels to the Statehouse.

Many states are considering safety protocols for the upcoming session, including the use of personal protective equipment, the use of safety partitions and social distancing on the chamber floor and committee rooms, and the use of health screenings before entering buildings. Again, actions taken in 2020 may serve as models for 2021. When the Colorado legislature met in late May to finish its session, safety guidance covering social distancing, health screenings and use of PPE were sent to members. Plexiglass safety partitions were used in the Colorado House chamber, the Tennessee House, the Louisiana House and the Virginia Senate, to name a few examples. At least nine legislative chambers introduced measures related to face coverings or mask requirements for legislators and others in legislative chambers or meeting rooms, and at least four chambers adopted resolutions: the Connecticut House, Illinois House, New Mexico House and Nevada Assembly.

Natalie Wood is the director of NCSL’s Center for Legislative Strengthening.

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