House, Senate outline plans to conduct a COVID-19 regular session

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 1,383 views 

While legislators prepare to debate the issues in the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly, a more critical debate is already underway: How to conduct a COVID-19 legislative session at the state capitol?

Unlike the fiscal session earlier this year, legislative leaders are already instituting changes that will keep the session accessible to the public, safe for participants, and within the boundaries of their constitutional duties.

“We’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” said Senate President Pro Tempore-elect Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. “There’s supposed to be public input, handshakes and negotiations, face-to-face conversations – exactly what we’re preaching against.”

In a Talk Business & Politics interview, Hickey and Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, outlined some of the changes on the Senate and House ends of the building they’ve been working on with staff for the 2021 regular session. While there are still adjustments to be made, the more significant logistics of conducting a session during a COVID-19 pandemic have been ironed out.

“My goal is to conduct as normal a session as possible so that members can file their bills, debate their bills, and take a vote. There’s going to have to be some things logistically that are different, and we’re working through those,” Shepherd said.

Joint committees will meet per usual in the earlier morning hours during weekdays. That includes the all-powerful Joint Budget Committee, which will preclude the morning regular session committee business. Some standing committees will meet as usual around 10 a.m., although the time could move back a half hour.

The chamber business of the Senate and House will follow its usual post-lunch schedule. Another full round of standing committee meetings will occur upon adjournment of chamber business. The culprit isn’t to speed up the session. It has to do with available meeting spaces.

Hickey and Shepherd tell TB&P there will be “bullpens” for the public and lobbyists to maintain social distancing. Committee rooms will have spaced out seating for lawmakers for their presentations and debates. There will be space in those committee rooms for agency and administration officials, who are often relied upon for data related to policy questions. The media will be provided seating in committee rooms to monitor activity, and live-streaming will be a crucial component of making the session’s business available to the public.

The “bullpens,” or holding rooms, adjacent to committee rooms will have limited seating for the public and lobbyists who may be there to testify on legislation. Capacity in those rooms has yet to be determined. There will be a closed-circuit video to allow those in a “bullpen” to watch what is happening in the room next door. Those speaking for or against a bill will be escorted into the room with legislators to make a presentation.

This additional social distancing protocol means that there are half of the standard committee rooms available at any given time, which explains why there will be a heavy mid-morning and mid-afternoon committee schedule. In essence, committee rooms will have to pull double-duty.

Speaking of committee rooms, some of the usual House rooms will have to be utilized by the Senate to pull off the safety requirements. A third committee room is being built in the Big MAC building next door to the capitol. It will be called Big MAC “C,” and the House will use it.

“We’re doing our best to try and provide adequate social distancing and to try and be as safe as possible for the members, for the staff, and the public,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd and Hickey say there may be an additional formality to the bill presentation process. Under normal circumstances, a bill that sits on a committee agenda might be brought up at any time during a session. That often leads to the necessity for those tracking legislation to be constantly vigilant if a measure moves quickly or unexpectedly. While still a possibility, that’s less likely to happen this session.

There will be a non-controversial “consent” agenda in committees for legislation that may refer to technical clean-ups or where there is no opposition to a change. The committees will also have a place for bills that will warrant more debate. Hickey wants committee chairs to schedule those bills in advance so the public can expect when they might run.

“Instead of a member just walking into a committee and saying, ‘I’m going to run my bill right now,’ what we’re going to do is we’re going to have another what I call an ‘active’ agenda,” Hickey said.

“If a sponsor, or whomever the sponsor of that filed bill, they’ve got to get with a committee chair, and they’ll schedule a time that they’re going to present that bill,” Hickey added. “The soonest that they can do it is 18 hours. And the reason we did that was to make sure that everybody in public knew that it was coming. Plenty of time for the staff to get it on the list.”

Shepherd said a goal is to limit a member of the public who wants to speak for or against a bill from coming to the capitol every day for a month or more without anticipation of when a bill may come up for consideration.

“We’re trying to give the public a better idea of what’s likely to run so that they can plan accordingly and hopefully avoid how it usually works out, where you have a lot of people showing up for things that may not even be running on that particular day,” Shepherd said.

The regular live-streaming of committee meetings, a mainstay of recent sessions, will remain in place and likely become even more essential to those following panel debates. There are safeguards in place to ensure the staff that runs the technology take precautions to keep live-streaming intact. Hickey contends the changes are meant to protect everyone involved in a session and provide better predictability on daily business. He is particularly sensitive to making sure citizens have access to legislators and the ability to convey their opinions on legislation.

“We don’t want the public to think we’re trying to exclude them,” Hickey said of the extra efforts. “We hope all of this will help.”

To even enter the state capitol during the session, there will be a screening process. Hickey said legislative leaders are working with Secretary of State John Thurston’s office to establish protocols, including temperature checks.

The Senate and House are angling to have all members seated on their respective floors. Plexiglass has been installed between seats. Shepherd said one of the two gallery seating areas above the House floor would be utilized for House members who want to space out more.

All of this is planned to have legislators in their regular floor positions. In the fiscal session in early 2020, the full House met at the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Everyone will be in the capitol this time.

Shepherd said more direct video feeds would be installed throughout the House end of the building to help legislators who want to socially distance further keep up with floor action.

“If a member wants to spread out, they could sit in one of the galleries. In the House offices and the areas around the House chamber, the direct feed will be practically simultaneous, so it will allow members, if they want to sit outside the chamber, to get up, move around, and spread out. There’s going to be better availability for them to monitor what’s going on on the floor,” Shepherd said.

Remote voting is being contemplated, but it is most likely that Representatives and Senators will have to cast their ballots on the floor, their gallery positions, or from some closed system within the capitol. If a member has to quarantine due to contracting COVID-19 or having contact with someone who has, there will be a “remote” way for them to participate in committees and chamber business.

“If a member were to have COVID or get quarantined like that, we are going to allow them to participate remotely in the committee meeting,” Hickey said. “We do want it to be COVID-related or if they’re a caregiver to somebody that’s at high-risk or something like that,” said Hickey, who added that to his knowledge, he’s expecting all 35 Senators to be in-person at the capitol.

Planned social activities, which are abundant during the months of a session, may take a hiatus this time around. Shepherd said those events are being discouraged this year, at least “at the outset.”

Both chamber leaders are hesitant to put a time prediction on how these COVID-19 protocols may affect the session’s length. The constitution calls for the General Assembly to meet for 60 days in regular session every other year. They can – and have in recent decades – always gone longer than the 60-day requirement.

“There’s no way to know,” Shepherd said. “From my standpoint, we’re going to take the time we need to get the job done, and we’re going to be efficient, but I’m not going to try and come up with ‘I want it to last this many days or this many months.’ That’s mostly dependent on the membership.”