REPORT: December 9 Member Meeting

Leaders’ Roundtable:
Convening in the COVID Era

The Senate Presidents’ Forum continued its virtual meetings on December 9, 2020, with a roundtable discussion of the states’ plans to ensure that their coming legislative sessions are conducted in a safe and inclusive manner. COVID-19 precautions cover a broad range, from surrounding members’ desks with Plexiglas cubes to moving meetings outdoors.

Discussion

Sen. Bill Ferguson (President of the Senate, MD): The Maryland Constitution requires that the Senate have recorded in-person voting in Annapolis. Plastic pods have been installed around every member’s desk to provide isolation from aerosolized virus. Twice a week, rapid COVID testing is required for those on campus in order to identify those testing positive and limit spread. Quarantine of exposed persons will be required if someone tests positive. Streaming technology was upgraded to ensure that constituents can participate remotely.

Sen. Jake Corman (Incoming Senate President Pro Tempore, PA): Since April 2020, no guests have been allowed in the Capitol, and staff have been required to have temperature checks, wear masks, and observe social distancing. However, members have the choice to wear or not wear masks when they attend the Senate in person. A temporary rule has allowed meeting and voting by Zoom, and this rule has been extended through the end of the year, so members can attend on Zoom if they aren’t comfortable with exposure to those not wearing masks. Still, remote participation can be awkward during debates, Sen. Corman observed, but members are getting accustomed to it. Committee meetings are held on the Senate floor where there is sufficient room to observe social distancing. A challenge yet to be resolved is the requirement that the swearing-in of new senators must be done in person in January.

Sen. Cathy Giessel (President of the Senate, AK): Alaska faces a significant challenge because most legislators can reach the capital only by airplane. The Capitol building is closed to the public. Temperature testing is required for members coming in, and each Senator may bring only one staff member. Additional safety proposals have included reducing the length of sessions or restricting members from traveling home during sessions. However, finding short-term housing for members in the area is a challenge, Sen. Giessel said. Many legislators are working from home, and leadership is currently determining what rules must be changed to enable remote sessions. Meanwhile, technology has been installed in six legislative offices around the state to tie into the Capitol and enable remote participation. This technology will allow the Senate to conduct remote sessions and identify who was present and voting, as is required.

Sen. Toni Atkins (Senate President Pro Tempore, CA): California’s full-time legislature will hold its organizational session this week to determine policies for safe sessions. Last year, we lost nine weeks of the session due to quarantines. In March 2020, the Senate set up rules for the possibility of remote voting; however, the Assembly did not agree with this approach. Subsequently, when 10 members dined together and one of them tested positive for COVID, the Legislature’s Public Health Officer required them to be quarantined in hotel rooms. Staff scrambled to get appropriate technology in their hotel rooms to complete the session.

For the upcoming session, vulnerable members can request remote voting. Three new members were sworn in remotely. Other strategies include reducing the bill load; referring bills to only one committee; building pods to isolate members on the floor; requiring masks and temperature checks; and providing live-streamed and televised sessions. Sen. Atkins noted that appropriate distancing is possible in the Senate Chamber, but the larger Assembly is planning to meet in a sports center.

Sen. Martin Looney (Senate President Pro Tempore, CT): Connecticut ended its Feb-May session early in March in response to the pandemic but held two special sessions over the summer for emergency legislation. The public is excluded from the Capitol, and members entering must wear masks. The early weeks of the five-month session are likely to be remote, and joint committees cannot meet in person until perhaps late in the session, if the vaccine makes it safe, Sen. Looney said. Other strategies include limiting the number of bills each legislator introduces, and limiting the number of members on the floor to include only leadership, the person sponsoring the bill, and the next person to speak on the bill. A tally board for voting has been installed in the Senate Chamber which allows members to vote from their offices in the Capitol.

Sen. Ron Kouchi (President of the Senate, HI): Hawai’i faces a similar challenge to Alaska, as most members have to fly to the capital from neighboring islands. Hawai’i experienced a cycle of in-person sessions: After someone tested positive for the virus, the Capitol was shut down and the Legislature took a recess. The session resumed, but was suspended again when an additional positive test occurred.

Some changes to ensure greater safety and continuity for the Legislature include taking written testimony only and allowing remote participation. Half the chairs have been removed from meeting rooms to enable social distancing, and only five people at a time are allowed into the Chamber. Other members watch the proceedings on monitors outside on the lanai and take turns entering five at a time. Sen. Kouchi pointed out, “We realized we were violating protocol by allowing people to return to the session if they had a negative test even after close contact.” Now a 10-day quarantine is required after close contact; so far, one member and three staffers had positive tests. Social distancing and masks are limiting spread when someone does get infected. There is some discussion about shortening the session, Sen. Kouchi said, but there are many policy decisions that the Legislature needs to be involved with instead of having the Governor make the decisions independently.

Sen. J. Kalani English (Senate Majority Leader, HI): The state’s Constitution allowed for remote participation during “catastrophic events,” so legislators declared the pandemic a catastrophe at the start of session. “We have kept the rate of infections low because people have been compliant with masks, distancing, and adherence to lockdowns,” said Sen. English. “Now we have to consider the future; for example, how bills should be signed in a way that avoids having people touch documents.”

Sen. Don Harmon (President of the Senate, IL): The Illinois Senate currently plans to return to in-person meetings in the spring. The Constitution requires an organizational meeting on January 13 “at the seat of government,” but in the case of “pestilence” the Governor can convene session someplace else; for example, on Zoom. The House and Senate did not agree to remote participation and remote voting. However, people with vulnerabilities can vote remotely, while in-person attendance requires personal protective equipment (masks) and temperature checks, and presence on the floor is limited to five people at a time. Sen. Harmon observed that, after a few days, people become less compliant with these restrictions and need reminders. The Capitol building is closed to the public but live-streamed sessions allow people to observe the sessions and subsequently comment to their representatives.

“After a few days, people become less compliant with restrictions and need reminders.”— Sen. Don Harmon

 Sen. Hanna Gallo (Chair, Senate Education Committee, RI): Lack of ventilation in the Rhode Island State House forced the Legislature to move to Rhode Island College, where spacious rooms can hold up to 500 people and allow proper social distancing. The Legislature can suspend session for a few weeks if needed for quarantine, and proxy voting is permitted if a senator cannot attend in person. Virtual committee meetings will be held for this session, and public participation will be enabled via WebEx.

Sen. Rodric Bray (Senate President Pro Tempore, IN): Indiana’s session begins January 4. Safety measures have been put in place including rearranging chamber seating for proper spacing, seating 20 senators in the balcony, and installing plastic separators. Committee meetings are spaced apart to avoid too many people in the Chamber simultaneously, and remote testimony to the committees is allowed. Sen. Bray pointed out that it is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders. Normally the session would finish by April 29, he said, but it may be extended to June in order to allow extra time in case quarantines become necessary when/if members test positive.

“It is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders.”— Sen. Rodric Bray

Sen. Jeremy Miller (President of the Senate, MN): The Legislature has to renew the emergency powers granted to the Governor every 30 days, and this has driven a requirement for a session every 30 days. The hybrid model for the Senate includes the option for a floor session vote and debate in person, if chosen, or participation via Zoom or phone. The Zoom session is open to the public; however, the Capitol is closed to the public. Sen. Miller said legislators look forward to opening up as a vaccine becomes available.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (Senate President Pro Tempore, NM): The Capitol remains closed to the public, and most legislators are working from home. Zoom meetings are used for everything, including four days of Zoom meetings to develop the budget. Sen. Papen reported that the Senate met for two special sessions concerning the budget and allocations of CARES money. Senators met wearing masks and observing social distancing. To date, two Senators have tested positive for COVID-19, but they were not present at the meetings and did not infect others. The state’s Constitution requires the Legislature to meet on the third Tuesday in January; but committee meetings will be moved to the Convention Center to allow enough room for social distancing. Sen. Papen indicated that this creates a transportation issue in order to provide access for the public.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Senate Majority Leader, NY): Since New York shut down in March, the Legislature has been operating remotely for sessions, hearings, voting, and swearing in. For in-person meetings, a limited number of people are allowed on the floor, and masks are required. In-person voting is staggered with two people at a time permitted entrance to vote NO, while YES votes can be entered remotely.

Sen. Phil Berger (Senate President Pro Tempore, NC): Sen. Berger noted that “we’re all in the same boat.”  A session on January 13 is required by the Constitution, and it is likely that rules will be similar to those from Spring 2020, including requirements for masks and social distancing, with staff prohibited from the floor. For live, in-person sessions and voting, new cleaning and sanitizing procedures have been implemented. The legislative building is open only to members and a limited number of visitors. Press conferences are being held in larger rooms to make social distancing possible, while committee meetings remain remote.

Sen. Peter Courtney (President of the Senate, OR): Competing legal opinions on in-person versus remote sessions are still being debated, reported Sen. Courtney, but the Legislature consulted with experts in infectious diseases to determine best practices for how to convene. On January 11, the Senate will meet to swear in new legislators. Otherwise, committees are meeting virtually, and the Senate will meet in person to debate the bills and then leave.

Sen. Tom Alexander (Chair, Senate Labor, Commerce & Industry Committee, and Chair, Senate HHS Finance Committee, SC): Sen. Alexander noted that the South Carolina Constitution requires in-person legislative meetings. Committee meetings will be conducted remotely, and then senators will return to chambers after completing their committee work. Proper precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing will be observed.

Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (Senate President Pro Tempore, SD): One third of South Dakota’s 35 members have had COVID, but many still resist wearing masks, Sen. Schoenbeck reported. However, the Senate has the option to meet remotely.

 

The Forum Welcomes
New Senate Participants

Sen. Jake Corman
Senate President Pro Tempore
(Pennsylvania)

CONTACT US

Senate Presidents’ Forum

579 Broadway

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

 

Tel: 914-693-1818

Copyright © 2020 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.

REPORT: December 9 Member Meeting

Leaders’ Roundtable:
Convening in the COVID Era

The Senate Presidents’ Forum continued its virtual meetings on December 9, 2020, with a roundtable discussion of the states’ plans to ensure that their coming legislative sessions are conducted in a safe and inclusive manner. COVID-19 precautions cover a broad range, from surrounding members’ desks with Plexiglas cubes to moving meetings outdoors.

Discussion

Sen. Bill Ferguson (President of the Senate, MD): The Maryland Constitution requires that the Senate have recorded in-person voting in Annapolis. Plastic pods have been installed around every member’s desk to provide isolation from aerosolized virus. Twice a week, rapid COVID testing is required for those on campus in order to identify those testing positive and limit spread. Quarantine of exposed persons will be required if someone tests positive. Streaming technology was upgraded to ensure that constituents can participate remotely.

Sen. Jake Corman (Incoming Senate President Pro Tempore, PA): Since April 2020, no guests have been allowed in the Capitol, and staff have been required to have temperature checks, wear masks, and observe social distancing. However, members have the choice to wear or not wear masks when they attend the Senate in person. A temporary rule has allowed meeting and voting by Zoom, and this rule has been extended through the end of the year, so members can attend on Zoom if they aren’t comfortable with exposure to those not wearing masks. Still, remote participation can be awkward during debates, Sen. Corman observed, but members are getting accustomed to it. Committee meetings are held on the Senate floor where there is sufficient room to observe social distancing. A challenge yet to be resolved is the requirement that the swearing-in of new senators must be done in person in January.

Sen. Cathy Giessel (President of the Senate, AK): Alaska faces a significant challenge because most legislators can reach the capital only by airplane. The Capitol building is closed to the public. Temperature testing is required for members coming in, and each Senator may bring only one staff member. Additional safety proposals have included reducing the length of sessions or restricting members from traveling home during sessions. However, finding short-term housing for members in the area is a challenge, Sen. Giessel said. Many legislators are working from home, and leadership is currently determining what rules must be changed to enable remote sessions. Meanwhile, technology has been installed in six legislative offices around the state to tie into the Capitol and enable remote participation. This technology will allow the Senate to conduct remote sessions and identify who was present and voting, as is required.

Sen. Toni Atkins (Senate President Pro Tempore, CA): California’s full-time legislature will hold its organizational session this week to determine policies for safe sessions. Last year, we lost nine weeks of the session due to quarantines. In March 2020, the Senate set up rules for the possibility of remote voting; however, the Assembly did not agree with this approach. Subsequently, when 10 members dined together and one of them tested positive for COVID, the Legislature’s Public Health Officer required them to be quarantined in hotel rooms. Staff scrambled to get appropriate technology in their hotel rooms to complete the session.

For the upcoming session, vulnerable members can request remote voting. Three new members were sworn in remotely. Other strategies include reducing the bill load; referring bills to only one committee; building pods to isolate members on the floor; requiring masks and temperature checks; and providing live-streamed and televised sessions. Sen. Atkins noted that appropriate distancing is possible in the Senate Chamber, but the larger Assembly is planning to meet in a sports center.

Sen. Martin Looney (Senate President Pro Tempore, CT): Connecticut ended its Feb-May session early in March in response to the pandemic but held two special sessions over the summer for emergency legislation. The public is excluded from the Capitol, and members entering must wear masks. The early weeks of the five-month session are likely to be remote, and joint committees cannot meet in person until perhaps late in the session, if the vaccine makes it safe, Sen. Looney said. Other strategies include limiting the number of bills each legislator introduces, and limiting the number of members on the floor to include only leadership, the person sponsoring the bill, and the next person to speak on the bill. A tally board for voting has been installed in the Senate Chamber which allows members to vote from their offices in the Capitol.

Sen. Ron Kouchi (President of the Senate, HI): Hawai’i faces a similar challenge to Alaska, as most members have to fly to the capital from neighboring islands. Hawai’i experienced a cycle of in-person sessions: After someone tested positive for the virus, the Capitol was shut down and the Legislature took a recess. The session resumed, but was suspended again when an additional positive test occurred.

Some changes to ensure greater safety and continuity for the Legislature include taking written testimony only and allowing remote participation. Half the chairs have been removed from meeting rooms to enable social distancing, and only five people at a time are allowed into the Chamber. Other members watch the proceedings on monitors outside on the lanai and take turns entering five at a time. Sen. Kouchi pointed out, “We realized we were violating protocol by allowing people to return to the session if they had a negative test even after close contact.” Now a 10-day quarantine is required after close contact; so far, one member and three staffers had positive tests. Social distancing and masks are limiting spread when someone does get infected. There is some discussion about shortening the session, Sen. Kouchi said, but there are many policy decisions that the Legislature needs to be involved with instead of having the Governor make the decisions independently.

Sen. J. Kalani English (Senate Majority Leader, HI): The state’s Constitution allowed for remote participation during “catastrophic events,” so legislators declared the pandemic a catastrophe at the start of session. “We have kept the rate of infections low because people have been compliant with masks, distancing, and adherence to lockdowns,” said Sen. English. “Now we have to consider the future; for example, how bills should be signed in a way that avoids having people touch documents.”

Sen. Don Harmon (President of the Senate, IL): The Illinois Senate currently plans to return to in-person meetings in the spring. The Constitution requires an organizational meeting on January 13 “at the seat of government,” but in the case of “pestilence” the Governor can convene session someplace else; for example, on Zoom. The House and Senate did not agree to remote participation and remote voting. However, people with vulnerabilities can vote remotely, while in-person attendance requires personal protective equipment (masks) and temperature checks, and presence on the floor is limited to five people at a time. Sen. Harmon observed that, after a few days, people become less compliant with these restrictions and need reminders. The Capitol building is closed to the public but live-streamed sessions allow people to observe the sessions and subsequently comment to their representatives.

“After a few days, people become less compliant with restrictions and need reminders.”— Sen. Don Harmon

 Sen. Hanna Gallo (Chair, Senate Education Committee, RI): Lack of ventilation in the Rhode Island State House forced the Legislature to move to Rhode Island College, where spacious rooms can hold up to 500 people and allow proper social distancing. The Legislature can suspend session for a few weeks if needed for quarantine, and proxy voting is permitted if a senator cannot attend in person. Virtual committee meetings will be held for this session, and public participation will be enabled via WebEx.

Sen. Rodric Bray (Senate President Pro Tempore, IN): Indiana’s session begins January 4. Safety measures have been put in place including rearranging chamber seating for proper spacing, seating 20 senators in the balcony, and installing plastic separators. Committee meetings are spaced apart to avoid too many people in the Chamber simultaneously, and remote testimony to the committees is allowed. Sen. Bray pointed out that it is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders. Normally the session would finish by April 29, he said, but it may be extended to June in order to allow extra time in case quarantines become necessary when/if members test positive.

“It is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders.”— Sen. Rodric Bray

Sen. Jeremy Miller (President of the Senate, MN): The Legislature has to renew the emergency powers granted to the Governor every 30 days, and this has driven a requirement for a session every 30 days. The hybrid model for the Senate includes the option for a floor session vote and debate in person, if chosen, or participation via Zoom or phone. The Zoom session is open to the public; however, the Capitol is closed to the public. Sen. Miller said legislators look forward to opening up as a vaccine becomes available.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (Senate President Pro Tempore, NM): The Capitol remains closed to the public, and most legislators are working from home. Zoom meetings are used for everything, including four days of Zoom meetings to develop the budget. Sen. Papen reported that the Senate met for two special sessions concerning the budget and allocations of CARES money. Senators met wearing masks and observing social distancing. To date, two Senators have tested positive for COVID-19, but they were not present at the meetings and did not infect others. The state’s Constitution requires the Legislature to meet on the third Tuesday in January; but committee meetings will be moved to the Convention Center to allow enough room for social distancing. Sen. Papen indicated that this creates a transportation issue in order to provide access for the public.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Senate Majority Leader, NY): Since New York shut down in March, the Legislature has been operating remotely for sessions, hearings, voting, and swearing in. For in-person meetings, a limited number of people are allowed on the floor, and masks are required. In-person voting is staggered with two people at a time permitted entrance to vote NO, while YES votes can be entered remotely.

Sen. Phil Berger (Senate President Pro Tempore, NC): Sen. Berger noted that “we’re all in the same boat.”  A session on January 13 is required by the Constitution, and it is likely that rules will be similar to those from Spring 2020, including requirements for masks and social distancing, with staff prohibited from the floor. For live, in-person sessions and voting, new cleaning and sanitizing procedures have been implemented. The legislative building is open only to members and a limited number of visitors. Press conferences are being held in larger rooms to make social distancing possible, while committee meetings remain remote.

Sen. Peter Courtney (President of the Senate, OR): Competing legal opinions on in-person versus remote sessions are still being debated, reported Sen. Courtney, but the Legislature consulted with experts in infectious diseases to determine best practices for how to convene. On January 11, the Senate will meet to swear in new legislators. Otherwise, committees are meeting virtually, and the Senate will meet in person to debate the bills and then leave.

Sen. Tom Alexander (Chair, Senate Labor, Commerce & Industry Committee, and Chair, Senate HHS Finance Committee, SC): Sen. Alexander noted that the South Carolina Constitution requires in-person legislative meetings. Committee meetings will be conducted remotely, and then senators will return to chambers after completing their committee work. Proper precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing will be observed.

Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (Senate President Pro Tempore, SD): One third of South Dakota’s 35 members have had COVID, but many still resist wearing masks, Sen. Schoenbeck reported. However, the Senate has the option to meet remotely.

 

The Forum Welcomes
New Senate Participants

Sen. Jake Corman
Senate President Pro Tempore
(Pennsylvania)

Reopening Plan

Pandemic Mitigation Strategies for State Legislative Sessions

CONTACT US

Senate Presidents’ Forum

579 Broadway

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

 

Tel: 914-693-1818

Copyright © 2020 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.

REPORT: December 9 Member Meeting

Leaders’ Roundtable:
Convening in the COVID Era

Download PDF of article

 

The Senate Presidents’ Forum continued its virtual meetings on December 9, 2020, with a roundtable discussion of the states’ plans to ensure that their coming legislative sessions are conducted in a safe and inclusive manner. COVID-19 precautions cover a broad range, from surrounding members’ desks with Plexiglas cubes to moving meetings outdoors.

Discussion

Sen. Bill Ferguson (President of the Senate, MD): The Maryland Constitution requires that the Senate have recorded in-person voting in Annapolis. Plastic pods have been installed around every member’s desk to provide isolation from aerosolized virus. Twice a week, rapid COVID testing is required for those on campus in order to identify those testing positive and limit spread. Quarantine of exposed persons will be required if someone tests positive. Streaming technology was upgraded to ensure that constituents can participate remotely.

Sen. Jake Corman (PA): Since April 2020, no guests have been allowed in the Capitol, and staff have been required to have temperature checks, wear masks, and observe social distancing. However, members have the choice to wear or not wear masks when they attend the Senate in person. A temporary rule has allowed meeting and voting by Zoom, and this rule has been extended through the end of the year, so members can attend on Zoom if they aren’t comfortable with exposure to those not wearing masks. Still, remote participation can be awkward during debates, Sen. Corman observed, but members are getting accustomed to it. Committee meetings are held on the Senate floor where there is sufficient room to observe social distancing. A challenge yet to be resolved is the requirement that the swearing-in of new senators must be done in person in January.

Sen. Cathy Giessel (AK): Alaska faces a significant challenge because most legislators can reach the capital only by airplane. The Capitol building is closed to the public. Temperature testing is required for members coming in, and each Senator may bring only one staff member. Additional safety proposals have included reducing the length of sessions or restricting members from traveling home during sessions. However, finding short-term housing for members in the area is a challenge, Sen. Giessel said. Many legislators are working from home, and leadership is currently determining what rules must be changed to enable remote sessions. Meanwhile, technology has been installed in six legislative offices around the state to tie into the Capitol and enable remote participation. This technology will allow the Senate to conduct remote sessions and identify who was present and voting, as is required.

Sen. Toni Atkins (CA): California’s full-time legislature will hold its organizational session this week to determine policies for safe sessions. Last year, we lost nine weeks of the session due to quarantines. In March 2020, the Senate set up rules for the possibility of remote voting; however, the Assembly did not agree with this approach. Subsequently, when 10 members dined together and one of them tested positive for COVID, the Legislature’s Public Health Officer required them to be quarantined in hotel rooms. Staff scrambled to get appropriate technology in their hotel rooms to complete the session.

For the upcoming session, vulnerable members can request remote voting. Three new members were sworn in remotely. Other strategies include reducing the bill load; referring bills to only one committee; building pods to isolate members on the floor; requiring masks and temperature checks; and providing live-streamed and televised sessions. Sen. Atkins noted that appropriate distancing is possible in the Senate Chamber, but the larger Assembly is planning to meet in a sports center.

Sen. Martin Looney (Senate President Pro Tempore, CT): Connecticut ended its Feb-May session early in March in response to the pandemic but held two special sessions over the summer for emergency legislation. The public is excluded from the Capitol, and members entering must wear masks. The early weeks of the five-month session are likely to be remote, and joint committees cannot meet in person until perhaps late in the session, if the vaccine makes it safe, Sen. Looney said. Other strategies include limiting the number of bills each legislator introduces, and limiting the number of members on the floor to include only leadership, the person sponsoring the bill, and the next person to speak on the bill. A tally board for voting has been installed in the Senate Chamber which allows members to vote from their offices in the Capitol.

Sen. Ron Kouchi (President of the Senate, HI): Hawai’i faces a similar challenge to Alaska, as most members have to fly to the capital from neighboring islands. Hawai’i experienced a cycle of in-person sessions: After someone tested positive for the virus, the Capitol was shut down and the Legislature took a recess. The session resumed, but was suspended again when an additional positive test occurred.

Some changes to ensure greater safety and continuity for the Legislature include taking written testimony only and allowing remote participation. Half the chairs have been removed from meeting rooms to enable social distancing, and only five people at a time are allowed into the Chamber. Other members watch the proceedings on monitors outside on the lanai and take turns entering five at a time. Sen. Kouchi pointed out, “We realized we were violating protocol by allowing people to return to the session if they had a negative test even after close contact.” Now a 10-day quarantine is required after close contact; so far, one member and three staffers had positive tests. Social distancing and masks are limiting spread when someone does get infected. There is some discussion about shortening the session, Sen. Kouchi said, but there are many policy decisions that the Legislature needs to be involved with instead of having the Governor make the decisions independently.

Sen. J. Kalani English (Senate Majority Leader, HI): The state’s Constitution allowed for remote participation during “catastrophic events,” so legislators declared the pandemic a catastrophe at the start of session. “We have kept the rate of infections low because people have been compliant with masks, distancing, and adherence to lockdowns,” said Sen. English. “Now we have to consider the future; for example, how bills should be signed in a way that avoids having people touch documents.”

Sen. Don Harmon (President of the Senate, IL): The Illinois Senate currently plans to return to in-person meetings in the spring. The Constitution requires an organizational meeting on January 13 “at the seat of government,” but in the case of “pestilence” the Governor can convene session someplace else; for example, on Zoom. The House and Senate did not agree to remote participation and remote voting. However, people with vulnerabilities can vote remotely, while in-person attendance requires personal protective equipment (masks) and temperature checks, and presence on the floor is limited to five people at a time. Sen. Harmon observed that, after a few days, people become less compliant with these restrictions and need reminders. The Capitol building is closed to the public but live-streamed sessions allow people to observe the sessions and subsequently comment to their representatives.

“After a few days, people become less compliant with restrictions and need reminders.”— Sen. Don Harmon

 Sen. Hanna Gallo (Chair, Senate Education Committee, RI): Lack of ventilation in the Rhode Island State House forced the Legislature to move to Rhode Island College, where spacious rooms can hold up to 500 people and allow proper social distancing. The Legislature can suspend session for a few weeks if needed for quarantine, and proxy voting is permitted if a senator cannot attend in person. Virtual committee meetings will be held for this session, and public participation will be enabled via WebEx.

Sen. Rodric Bray (Senate President Pro Tempore, IN): Indiana’s session begins January 4. Safety measures have been put in place including rearranging chamber seating for proper spacing, seating 20 senators in the balcony, and installing plastic separators. Committee meetings are spaced apart to avoid too many people in the Chamber simultaneously, and remote testimony to the committees is allowed. Sen. Bray pointed out that it is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders. Normally the session would finish by April 29, he said, but it may be extended to June in order to allow extra time in case quarantines become necessary when/if members test positive.

“It is essential to maintain process transparency and to allow access and input from all stakeholders.”— Sen. Rodric Bray

Sen. Jeremy Miller (President of the Senate, MN): The Legislature has to renew the emergency powers granted to the Governor every 30 days, and this has driven a requirement for a session every 30 days. The hybrid model for the Senate includes the option for a floor session vote and debate in person, if chosen, or participation via Zoom or phone. The Zoom session is open to the public; however, the Capitol is closed to the public. Sen. Miller said legislators look forward to opening up as a vaccine becomes available.

Sen. Mary Kay Papen (Senate President Pro Tempore, NM): The Capitol remains closed to the public, and most legislators are working from home. Zoom meetings are used for everything, including four days of Zoom meetings to develop the budget. Sen. Papen reported that the Senate met for two special sessions concerning the budget and allocations of CARES money. Senators met wearing masks and observing social distancing. To date, two Senators have tested positive for COVID-19, but they were not present at the meetings and did not infect others. The state’s Constitution requires the Legislature to meet on the third Tuesday in January; but committee meetings will be moved to the Convention Center to allow enough room for social distancing. Sen. Papen indicated that this creates a transportation issue in order to provide access for the public.

Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins (Senate Majority Leader, NY): Since New York shut down in March, the Legislature has been operating remotely for sessions, hearings, voting, and swearing in. For in-person meetings, a limited number of people are allowed on the floor, and masks are required. In-person voting is staggered with two people at a time permitted entrance to vote NO, while YES votes can be entered remotely.

Sen. Phil Berger (Senate President Pro Tempore, NC): Sen. Berger noted that “we’re all in the same boat.”  A session on January 13 is required by the Constitution, and it is likely that rules will be similar to those from Spring 2020, including requirements for masks and social distancing, with staff prohibited from the floor. For live, in-person sessions and voting, new cleaning and sanitizing procedures have been implemented. The legislative building is open only to members and a limited number of visitors. Press conferences are being held in larger rooms to make social distancing possible, while committee meetings remain remote.

Sen. Peter Courtney (President of the Senate, OR): Competing legal opinions on in-person versus remote sessions are still being debated, reported Sen. Courtney, but the Legislature consulted with experts in infectious diseases to determine best practices for how to convene. On January 11, the Senate will meet to swear in new legislators. Otherwise, committees are meeting virtually, and the Senate will meet in person to debate the bills and then leave.

Sen. Tom Alexander (Chair, Senate Labor, Commerce & Industry Committee, and Chair, Senate HHS Finance Committee, SC): Sen. Alexander noted that the South Carolina Constitution requires in-person legislative meetings. Committee meetings will be conducted remotely, and then senators will return to chambers after completing their committee work. Proper precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing will be observed.

Sen. Lee Schoenbeck (Senate President Pro Tempore, SD): One third of South Dakota’s 35 members have had COVID, but many still resist wearing masks, Sen. Schoenbeck reported. However, the Senate has the option to meet remotely.

CONTACT US

Senate Presidents’ Forum

579 Broadway

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706

Tel: 914-693-1818

Copyright © 2020 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.