2021 is going to look different at the state Capitol. It will be the first time a legislative session will be held remotely.
With the state Capitol building closed, lawmakers adopted rules earlier this week to help them operate in a virtual world.
“For committee meetings members will be on Zoom. The public can watch on YouTube,” Senator Majority Leader Bob Duff explained.
It’s a concession to the COVID-19 virus.
“We’re doing the best we can to make sure we’re keeping everybody’s health and safety paramount during these very challenging times,” Duff said.
But what does that mean for public access to the legislative process?
“I heard remarks said that it’s not fair that our public hearings are only on Zoom. I agree. It’s no substitute for being in person, but I also don’t think having Zoom is such a bad idea for a hearing. Right now to attend a public hearing you have to take a day off of work,” House Speaker Matt Ritter said.
Ritter said it may not be such a bad thing for lawmakers to embrace new technology.
“We have tried to find a way to continue government that in doing it in the virtual world that we are not shutting out the public,” Minority Leader Vincent Candelora said.
On Wednesday lawmakers changed the rules to make the session easier for the public to access by requiring an agenda to be posted by 6 p.m. the night before a hearing instead of midnight.
“As we move forward in this new world, we’re going to figure it out and I think we all just need to be committed when we’re running these meetings that we give the opportunity for the public input,” Candelora said.
Catching a lawmaker on their way to the elevator to gauge where they stand on a bill can’t happen when the building is closed. Lobbyists are considered members of the public.
“I think we’re going to have to plan and adjust just the way that everybody has since the beginning of the pandemic,” Kate Robinson, a principal in Gallo Robinson, said.
Robinson said she will rely heavily on her existing relationships with lawmakers.
“I think it will feel a lot more frustrated because every contact is a deliberate and purposeful contact,” Robinson said.
The ability to build a relationship through small talk is over.
“There’s no on your way to the cafeteria, on your way to the soda machine, on your way up the escalator opportunities to just have a kind of hit and run conversation,” Robinson said.
Duff admits a virtual session will change things.
“It does change some of the dynamics because a lot of things get done during conversations in the hallway between legislators and others,” Duff said.