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The Future of Legislative Sessions in a Post-COVID World

Now that fully vaccinated individuals can meet indoors without wearing masks, will state legislative sessions continue to meet online? Or will lawmakers go back to meeting in person?

Washington state Capitol
Eyragon Eidam/Government Technology
As life post-COVID becomes more of a reality, will state legislative sessions return to normal? Or will hybrid sessions become the standard?

According to Washington’s lieutenant governor, things will return to the status quo, but an industry expert says that might not be so simple.

Due to COVID-19, several state capitol buildings closed their doors to prevent the spread of the virus, forcing lawmakers to meet online. Concerns such as spotty Internet connections, a lack of resident participation and the impersonal nature of virtual meetings were raised by state lawmakers as a result.

But one state official said his concerns quickly dissipated as virtual meetings became more commonplace.

“The transition was wildly successful,” said Denny Heck, Washington State’s lieutenant governor. “Fourteen or 15 of the 49 members were on the floor, and the rest joined via Zoom.”

“Within our 105-day session, meeting online did not prevent the passing of any major bills,” Heck added. “However, that’s not to say there weren’t any glitches.”

One common problem was broadband connection issues, which presented difficulties for lawmakers attempting to access virtual meetings. At the same time, this limitation tended to be the exception and not the rule, Heck said.

As for state lawmakers meeting in person, he said that he suspects things will return to normal sooner rather than later.

“I think floor deliberations will be in person next year, assuming we don’t get another variant that knocks us off our rocker,” Heck said. “It’s easier for members to not pay as close attention [online] when the kids are running around, or the dog is barking at the postman.”

Yet resuming meetings in person comes with another concern: security.

“On Jan. 6, a horrific event occurred in our nation’s capital,” Heck said. “On the same day, a minor event occurred in Washington state.”

That event involved a group of pro-Trump protestors storming the grounds of the governor’s mansion and engaging in a half-hour standoff with law enforcement.

Because of this incident, “the issues of how and when we open up are no longer about mask-wearing alone but also deal with potential problems related to security,” Heck said.

Another factor that could impact state lawmakers’ ability to meet in person is the length of each state’s legislative session, according to Natalie Wood, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Legislative Strengthening.

One reason different legislatures are doing different things, Wood said, is time constraints.

“Some states don’t have time constraints to adjourn by a certain date,” she said. “Other states are waiting for certain dates or emergency orders to pass before deciding to meet in person again.”

It all depends on the needs and rules of each state, Wood explained. For example, in New Mexico, the state legislative session took place remotely after the capitol building closed in February.

According to Rep. Roger Montoya, legislating remotely was not only successful but also eliminated previous challenges caused by meeting in person.

“Obviously, the pandemic caused so many repercussions,” Montoya said. “The silver lining this session is that it eliminated some of the chaos.”

“We have a 30-day session followed by a 60-day session,” he continued. “Each is typically rife with lobbyists, distractions and excessive dinners. However, all of that was basically nonexistent for me because we were home most of the time.”

Another benefit of working remotely, he said, was hearing from constituents all over the state.

“Our state is very rural, so before, if a constituent had something to say, they might have to drive four to six hours, park, find the room and get to the microphone to voice their concerns,” Montoya said. “Now, constituents from all over the state can voice their concerns from the comfort of their homes.”

Because of this factor, Montoya predicts remote legislative sessions will continue post-COVID.

But connectivity issues remain. Several lawmakers in New Mexico dealt with broadband limitations, Montoya said. The Internet situation even led to the passing of two bills to correct the problem.

“In more urban centers, it’s easier to connect,” he said. “In other areas, topographical issues along with other challenges make it harder. It’s not simple and will take serious work.”

On the other hand, the experience in New Mexico has shown that remote legislative sessions can not only work but also be successful, Montoya added.
Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University, and more than five years of experience in the print and digital news industry.
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