The idea of covering a Legislative session remotely seems inherently wrong.
Not watching the proceedings or witnessing real-life — and often nuanced — interactions between lawmakers, lobbyists, the public and journalists in the chambers, meeting rooms and halls of the Capitol? Inconceivable!
Coping with the public health crisis caused by coronavirus, however, has upended most facets of conventional life, and the two-day virtual special session that will begin online Friday is necessary. Not preferable, but essential for the protection of everyone involved.
That wasn’t my initial conclusion. No, my knee-jerk reaction was to rail against such a move to a few friends and bitterly complain that the state has no right to push the public (and me) out of the picture.
But you know what? We’ll all adapt to this change, and we’ll survive. It’s hardly ideal, and it would be naive to believe it won’t affect how laws are crafted and passed. If politicians and the usual suspects who hang around them can all be kept safe, though, it’s worth some sacrifices.
Most of the public will be able to see and/or hear the official proceedings online and make comments the same way they do now via email or phone calls. If anything, I imagine the legislators’ inboxes and voice messages may be fuller than ever before.
The virtual session will mark a swift kick into the 21st century for the Legislature. It’s only been three years since the House soundly rejected a bill sponsored by Rep. Bucky Loucks (R-Casper) to allow all committee meetings to be audiotaped.
This year the Legislature approved funds to simulcast all committee meetings, so people can watch their legislators in action no matter where they are located. In this respect, the special session will be light years ahead of a few decades ago, when neither the public nor the press could attend certain meetings that chairmen decided were private affairs.
I do have concerns. Not everyone has access to a computer or the broadband capacity to livestream the session on three YouTube channels that will show what’s happening in the Senate, House and joint conference committees. But that’s also true during regular legislative sessions.
The need to practice social distancing will also make life more difficult for lawmakers and media representatives. The latter initially weren’t going to be allowed to attend the session in person at all, but legislative leaders relented after protests by news organizations. Now there will be limited access for the press.
Bottom line: It’s vital that the Wyoming state government determines how to spend $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funding so the money can be directed to where it’s needed most.
That function is a legislative one, with recommendations by the governor, who still has veto power. Unlike some states where governors have asserted their authority to decide on their own how to use the COVID-19 impact funds, Gov. Mark Gordon and legislative leaders have treated the special session’s work the same way they do writing a state budget.
That certainly doesn’t mean they’ve always agreed since the pandemic struck, when Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist issued a state health order to close schools, colleges, dine-in restaurants, bars, gyms, hair salons, barber shops and other businesses. Some of those restrictions are gradually being eased, but Wyoming will long deal with the economic damage the disease has wrought.
I expect we’ll see disagreements on several proposals, ranging from interpretations of how federal rules say the CARES Act can be used to how much is allocated for hospitals and local governments. Bills drafted by the Legislative Management Council for consideration during the May 15-16 session will also likely be the subject of many amendments as they make their way through both houses.
I’m much more concerned about the speed at which the work will be done than I am about any single issue. Suspension of rules means that the three readings of bills normally done on separate days can be rushed through in one. It will be dizzying for everyone watching to try to keep up.
In a two-day session, the public literally won’t have time to meaningfully react to what’s happening in real-time. That would be true for either an in-person or a virtual session. It’s simply not a good way to conduct the public’s business.
Neither Gordon nor the Legislature have made decisions about whether there will be other special sessions this year, but it’s almost guaranteed at least one more will occur. Wyoming is in a tremendous fiscal crisis, with falling mineral tax revenue putting the state in a budgetary hole for the 2021-22 biennium that some analysts projected at between $556 million and $2.8 billion.
I fervently hope that such sessions will be longer, and that if they must again represent a hybrid as some lawmakers work in the Capitol and others work remotely, they include opportunities during committee meetings for the public to testify either by getting on the Zoom meeting agenda or via phone.
It’s vital for the public to be able to comment on draft legislation and amendments, just as they would if they attended in person.
Gordon’s quota about the state’s approach for easing COVID-19 restrictions— “We are building a plane while we are flying it” — is also an apt description of how legislative leaders and staff have had to plan this special session. The Management Council has made online meetings work, despite some technical glitches.
I can’t imagine how the whole process will unfold with separate, simultaneous screens containing 60 House members and 30 senators. It could be a flat-out horror show. At the very least it should provide some comic relief to the serious business that is being conducted.
I won’t be among the select group of media representatives who will be able to work at the Capitol. Because of my work both as a columnist and for a progressive advocacy group, I am considered neither a journalist or lobbyist.
Will I miss being there, after covering the Legislature for more than four decades? Of course I will. There’s nothing like being there to experience the dramatic tension of debates and votes on controversial issues. It’s addictive.
On the other hand, I won’t miss the tedium and frustration of watching endless debates on trivial topics that make it a chore to keep from dozing off. I won’t miss listening to legislators who are apparently in love with the sound of their voices and feel the need to comment about every subject.
At such times, I will take solace in the fact that in the comfort of my home office about three miles east of the Capitol, I will be able to shriek at the screen without embarrassing my profession(s). I can scream bloody murder if I feel like it.
And I’m sure I will.