Lawmaking in the time of COVID
Happy new year everyone. It’s now 2021, and with a new year comes the beginning of Gov. Jim Justice’s second term and a new legislative session with two Republican supermajorities.
The first thing to happen will be the start of the regular session of the West Virginia Legislature starting Wednesday, Jan. 13. This most likely will be a one-day affair with both chambers electing their leaders.
Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is the presumptive next Senate president. That also means he is next in the line of succession if something happens to Justice. This responsibility carries with it the honorary title of lieutenant governor, though there is officially no such position. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay is expected to keep his gavel.
That first day of the session will largely focus on ceremonial and organizational matters. They will approve the rules that will govern how their bodies function, officially accept election returns in a joint assembly and then gavel out until Wednesday, Feb. 10, as required by the state Constitution during a year when a new gubernatorial term starts. Justice and other members of the Board of Public Works will be sworn in Monday, Jan. 18.
The question on the minds of lawmakers, legislative staff, reporters, lobbyists and the public at large is what happens this legislative session in the era of COVID-19? Having both covered multiple legislative sessions and as a former legislative staffer myself, I can tell you a normal session is a crowded whirlwind of activity.
The House and Senate floors are crowded enough as it is. There is no room for staying 6 feet apart in either chamber. And forget committee rooms, especially on the House side. Those rooms are uncomfortably crowded during the best of days. Nevermind the fact the Capitol is 89-years-old this year. It wasn’t built with healthy air circulation in mind.
I understand lawmakers have been offered COVID-19 vaccines, though I have no idea how many have accepted them. I’m unsure where legislative staff fall in vaccine priority. Some of you might balk at either one of these groups getting vaccines before others, but they have a constitutional job to do: meet for 60 days and at some point in those 60 days pass a balanced budget for the next fiscal year.
But just because many lawmakers and possibly legislative staff might be vaccinated by Feb. 10 doesn’t mean all is well. The press, lobbyists, and the general public play an important role in the legislative process.
So far, there have been no details given to members of the Capitol Press Corps about what a COVID-19 session might look like. Will they limit how many press can be in the chamber and committee rooms? Will there be a pool system where one or two reporters cover things and share their reports with other media?
We’re blessed to have a Legislature that has offered audio live streaming of floor sessions and committee meetings for more than 11 years, along with video livestream of floor sessions since 2015. These services are wonderful and help reporters like me be able to cover both chambers at the same time.
Yet, we can’t just cover things by livestream alone. I’ve seen many reporters fall into this trap of relying off of feeds, even before COVID-19 caused everything to move to livestreams and video briefings. Sometimes it can’t be helped. But a lot is missed when you can’t be there in person, especially to corner a lawmaker after a contentious committee meeting.
Being a reporter comes with risk. Sometimes that means being pepper sprayed by police covering a Black Lives Matter protest. Sometimes that means dodging bullets in a war zone. If those reporters can do those things, I think the rest of us can deal with the risk of a COVID-19 infection while taking the appropriate precautions (masks, distancing, etc.)
What about lobbyists representing their clients and interests? What about the public? All three branches of government share the Capitol, but it’s the executive branch that controls the building itself. Capitol Police and the General Services Administration ultimately answer to Justice.
Right now, only people with scheduled business with an agency or department in the Capitol are allowed in. The building has been closed to the general public for most of the pandemic with no tours allowed. It remains to be seen how entry into the building by the public during the legislative session will work.
A few days ago I took an informal, non-scientific poll of several lawmakers and staffers about what the plans for the legislative session might be. The answers I received were a combination of “I don’t know” to “nothing will change.” Rumors out there claim the Legislature might gavel in Feb. 10 and gavel out until a later date.
They can do that theoretically. The state Constitution requires the session to start on Feb. 10 and sets a 60-day time limit for the regular session. However, it doesn’t set an end date. They could gavel out and return on March 1, for example, and resume the session.
As long as session ends at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday, April 28, that period between Feb. 10 and March 1 would give time for more people to be vaccinated and for COVID-19 numbers to come down, plus give lawmakers time to complete the session and have a budget finished with two months to spare until the end of fiscal year 2021 in June.
I had hoped a lot of these issues would have already been worked out. Keep in mind, we’ve been dealing with COVID-19 since the week after the 2020 legislative session ended. We’ve had more than 10 months to figure this out.
I understand that COVID-19 has created a fluid situation here, but the sausage-making of government stops for no disease or virus.