The 2021 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature begins today, and it will be like no other in the state’s history. (Read Brad McElhinny’s report on the start of the session.)
Many safety protocols are in place because of the pandemic. They will alter not only how and where lawmakers gather inside the State Capitol, but also how the public follows the proceedings, gains access to lawmakers, and makes their voices heard.
“Capitol access will be limited to just those that are here for the official business or other government services,” Governor Jim Justice said.
Senate and House leaders are trying to find a balance between conducting business and following safety guidelines, while also remaining transparent. Audio and video of floor sessions and committee meetings will be streamed online.
“The Senate is going to be accessible,” said new Senate President Craig Blair. “I mean it’s going to be accessible digitally.”
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw must figure out how to keep 100 members socially distanced, how to hold committee meetings in often cramped spaces and how to keep the public informed about what lawmakers are doing.
“We will be making sort of a game day decision each day,” he said.
Our Brad McElhinny, who has covered many legislative sessions, reported that modifications due to Covid will have a significant impact on the process.
“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 up (or runs into) an office and having the kind of casual conversations that can sometimes shape opinions and events.”
McElhinny makes a great point. The legislative process in our state is like a 60-day-long town hall meeting with wide ranging debates, shifting allegiances, side deals, emotional speeches and dry testimony. The ebb and flow of that activity affects what happens when critical votes are taken in committee and on the chamber floors.
One of the great beauties of the West Virginia Legislature is that it is a part-time body filled with people who, for the most part, are not professional politicians. And while at the Capitol they are usually accessible to citizens, groups, lobbyists, reporters and pretty much anyone who wants to bend their ears.
We will miss most of that, and that is bound to have an impact on what comes out of the West Virginia Legislature over the next two months.