As Legislature convenes, public won’t be where the public discourse is

West Virginia lawmakers return to the state Capitol next week to make decisions affecting the lives of 1.79 million state residents.

But the building has been closed to the general public for months during the coronavirus pandemic and will continue to be shut.

“Capitol access will be limited to just those that are here for official business or other government services,” Gov. Jim Justice said when asked about it on Friday during a regular briefing.

Legislative leaders have described a similar situation as they’ve tried to envision what the regular 60-day legislation will be like this year. The session begins this Wednesday, Feb. 10.

Both the Senate and the House of Delegates will stream meetings and floor sessions. The Senate has video streaming and archiving for all of its meetings. The House plans to use its Chamber for both floor sessions and committee meetings, which will allow for video. The House plans to use another room, commonly called the Government Organization committee room, for additional meetings. That room has audio streaming only.

That will make it challenging for the public to participate in some of the less tangible aspects of decision-making — being present in case discussion of a bill may reveal unexpected effects, speaking up spontaneously about a concern, watching reaction or side conversations, seeing who pops into (or runs into) an office and having the kind of casual conversations that can sometimes shape opinions and events.

Or, unlike in some recent years, it would be impossible for large groups of citizens to make their presence known by chanting and rumbling in the common areas outside legislative chambers.

A couple of weeks ago, 40 organizations sent a letter to legislative leaders, asking for an emphasis on public access.

The groups acknowledged that health and safety must come first, but noted “the Legislature is accountable to the citizens of West Virginia and is responsible for ensuring an open and transparent process.

Those who signed included ACLU of West Virginia, American Friends Service Committee, Fairness West Virginia, West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Sierra Club, West Virginia Council of Churches, WV Citizen Action Group, West Virginia Working Families Party and more.

The letter asks that members of the public be able to request and participate in a public hearing virtually, and for the agendas of all committee meetings to be posted electronically before the meeting begins, among other provisions.

Craig Blair

Senate President Craig Blair, speaking at a legislative lookahead event, said lawmakers will try to use technology.

“The Senate is going to be accessible. When I say accessible, I mean it’s going to be accessible digitally,” said Blair, R-Berkeley.

The Senate is likely to experiment with lawmakers participating in committee meetings online from their own offices, he said.

“Otherwise, there will be limited access into the building because of the covid concerns. We want to make sure members and staff and those who would be in the building are protected to the best of our ability,” Blair said.

He added, “That shouldn’t slow the process of being able to get our work done.”

Stephen Baldwin

Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin recognized the challenge of communicating with the public during the pandemic. He described having virtual office hours and public availability sessions on a regular basis, although the timing is still being worked out.

And with accessibility at the Capitol limited, Baldwin worried attempts at influence will be even greater after-hours. Democrats will introduce a bill aimed at limiting opportunities for lobbyists to take lawmakers to dinner, Baldwin said.

“Sometimes this place can be a bubble for 60 days,” said Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “I’m afraid that may be even more the case this year with covid.”

Roger Hanshaw

In the House of Delegates, Speaker Roger Hanshaw said the public may observe legislative activity through livestreaming. He noted the House’s aim of holding committee meetings only in rooms where delegates can spread out somewhat.

“We want to minimize the amount of time committee members are in close proximity to each other,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay.

Daily factors could include staff availability, schedules, committee agendas, locations of meetings and degree of public access. That may change, depending on the relative health of participants.

“We will be making sort of a game day decision each day,” Hanshaw said.

The legislative session will kick off with the governor’s annual State of the State address. That evening event in the House Chamber always includes delegates, senators, executive officers and justices of the Supreme Court. Most years, officials may bring a guest — and lobbyists and notables fill the upper galleries.

Gov. Jim Justice

Asked last week whether that would allow for social distancing precautions or if there might be changes, Justice said the crowd might be thinned out somewhat but otherwise suggested the event would be about the same as usual.

“I have kind of left that to the House and the Senate because really it’s the House’s chamber. They’re taking every precaution as far as the number of visitors. They’re very, very limited,” Justice said. “We’re not going to be in a situation to where we’re going to be crowded or whatever.”

The governor added, “I will promise you that it’ll be right. And we’ll be spread out. We’ve got to go on with our lives, and at the same time we don’t want to go on with compounding a terrible issue.”

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