Despite COVID, Thousands Of Lawmakers Plan To Gather In State Capitols Next Month
It happens at the beginning of every year: elected officials, legislative staff, lobbyists, journalists and the public gather in large numbers in state capitol buildings around the country for a relentless few weeks — or months — of lawmaking.
In 2020, official business had wrapped in many states by mid-March when lockdowns began. In others, the spread of COVID-19 sent lawmakers home early.
Since then, lawmakers have gotten together in some states, though not to the degree the country will witness in 2021 when legislative sessions could include hundreds of people under one roof for weeks on end.
So 2021 is a test. How do the nation's thousands of state legislators, desperate to perform their duties, safely assemble during a pandemic? That question is especially critical considering that there have already been some deaths among legislators, along with more than 150 infections, according to one tally.
We asked several of our public radio station reporters who work in capital cities around the country what to expect where they are.
Openness and accessibility are points of pride at New Hampshire's State House. Four hundred twenty-four lawmakers serve for $100 a year, every bill gets a hearing, and committee rooms can resemble a scrum, where lawmakers, citizens, lobbyists and reporters pack themselves into poorly ventilated spaces. When COVID-19 hit last spring, Democratic-leaders quickly closed the State House. Some legislative action migrated to Zoom, other business was conducted in-person but at a distance, including several House sessions held inside the hockey rink at the University of New Hampshire.
But when Republicans reclaimed the majority in the November elections, leaders said they hoped to renew in-person hearings and explore ways to "reoccupy" the capital, as incoming House Speaker Dick Hinch put it.
But a week after winning the top seat in the House, Hinch died of COVID-19.
GOP Gov. Chris Sununu called Hinch's death, which followed several Republican gatherings, "a tragic, cautionary tale."
Last week, the New Hampshire House's third-ranking Republican announced she had tested positive for the coronavirus. The state has since opened testing sites to accommodate lawmakers, state house staff and their families. But safety policies for the new year remain murky. The first step will be for the New Hampshire House to elect a new speaker. That vote, which will be held outdoors with lawmakers gathering in cars (like a drive-in movie) is slated for Jan. 6.
The decision to have lawmakers in the Capitol building in Helena was made solely by Republicans, who hold strong majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Republicans also voted down proposals from Democrats to postpone the session, require testing and mandate masks building-wide. They instead created a controversial COVID-19 response panel they say will deal with virus-related issues as they arise.
Lawmakers also say that public health rules from other entities — like Gov. Steve Bullock's statewide mask mandate — do not apply to them when they conduct business in the Capitol building. That was determined by the Legislature's code commissioner in order to maintain separation of powers.
Montana Republicans have decided to allow for some to participate virtually, though. The decision came after pleas from Democrats, residents, local public health officials and lobbyists to hold an all-remote session.
Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth defended the hybrid model saying, "I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick. It's a possibility there are members that die," Ellsworth continued, "But the one thing we can do is come together and serve the great state of Montana."
Republicans, the majority party in Utah, have taken a more cautious approach to the virus. During Utah's session, lawmakers will continue to have the option of attending meetings and floor time remotely — or to participate in person. The legislature held a virtual special session in April, where all lawmakers debated and voted remotely, except for the House Speaker and Senate President. In subsequent special sessions and interim meetings, lawmakers have had the option to come into the Capitol building.
Lawmakers will get rapid COVID-19 tests twice a week if they want to enter the floors of their respective chambers. They are encouraged to wear masks on the floor, but not required. Plexiglass dividers have been installed between the lawmakers' desks.
The Capitol building has been closed to the public throughout the pandemic, but it will reopen for the 2021 session. Visitors are required to wear masks and the legislature will designate "mask ambassadors" to remind people. The Utah Highway Patrol will ask people to leave if they refuse to wear a mask.
The public will also be allowed to comment during committee meetings in person, but are encouraged to do so online like they have been able to since May. Committee rooms have been altered to allow for social distancing in the audience.
In Michigan, 11 state lawmakers and 37 legislative staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus this year. That number doesn't include Democratic Rep. Isaac Robinson who was 44 when he died of suspected COVID-19 in March.
And despite the state's occupational safety agency investigating the House of Representatives over alleged safety violations, incoming House leadership does not plan to make any changes for the coming year.
The Michigan House became the subject of national scrutiny after holding an hourslong hearing with Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer, who may have been infected with the virus at the time. Remote testimony was not allowed for the gathering.
State Senator Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat, introduced a resolution in the state Senate back in April that would've allowed for remote meetings but Republicans, who control both chambers, have insisted on continuing to meet in person. Temperature checks and health screenings have not prevented coronavirus spread in the legislature, where some lawmakers still don't wear masks.
"There are just so many people who are hanging on by a thread," says state Sen. McMorrow of the Michiganders who she and her colleagues serve, "But there just does not seem to be any interest in modifying the rules to allow for virtual meeting."
In Colorado, it looks as though Democratic leaders have decided to delay the annual legislative session due to the pandemic and the perils of trying to conduct business in a crowded state capitol building.
The Democratically-controlled legislature is legally required to begin on January 13 each year and run for no more than 120 days. But Colorado's declared state of emergency allows more flexibility within that timeline, though leaders of both parties are still working out the details.
The state supreme court ruled in the spring that lawmakers can temporarily pause their work and return later in the year. Incoming Speaker of the House, Alec Garnett, says he and others think that's the safest option.
According to leadership, lawmakers will stay in session next month only as long as it takes to get the most urgent and necessary work done, such as swearing in their new members, then they'll adjourn until at least mid-February.
Garnett says the goal for the break is to get to a point "that's removed from the potential spike from Christmas and New Year's and gives a little bit more time for the vaccine to circulate."
The legislature met in person for two and a half days in early December for a special session to pass a COVID-19 relief package. It highlighted deep divides between lawmakers on issues of coronavirus safety, the effectiveness of mask-wearing and rapid testing.
The state requires masks to be worn in most indoor settings, but it's not enforced for lawmakers inside the Capitol. Some Republican lawmakers declined to wear masks during the session and most did not get a rapid test available to them. About one-third of the legislature decided to participate remotely.
"The biggest thing is — how do we do things in the safest manner possible?" said Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, of returning to work at the Capitol. He's an Emergency Room nurse and was the first state lawmaker to receive the coronavirus vaccine. "That's our number one priority. We want to make sure people don't get hurt."