Could Gov. Brad Little’s opening remarks at the start of the 2021 legislation session be the first “Zoom State of the State Address” in Idaho history?
That previously unimaginable option is an example of the kind of contingency planning state officials are currently engaged in, given the possibility of a resurgence in coronavirus cases this fall.
Legislative Services Director Eric Milstead discussed the issue during a Legislative Council meeting in Boise on Friday.
Historically, the State of the State Address has been delivered in the Idaho House chambers. In recent years it’s been streamed live online, but all 105 legislators are also in attendance – along with the Supreme Court justices, all state constitutional officers and another 100 or so spectators in the House gallery.
If the coronavirus remains a concern come January, Milstead said, “there’s a risk in jamming all 105 of you and the (other officials) into that room. In working with the governor’s office, I think there are ways to deal with that. Maybe it will be a ‘Zoom State of the State Address.’ I’m just thinking out loud here, but it’s something to consider.”
Zoom is one of several online video conferencing applications that have seen skyrocketing demand since the coronavirus pandemic began. School boards, county commissions and other government entities use them to conduct public business, at a time when the public can’t actually be in the room.
Officials hope such technology won’t be needed for the 2021 session. However, they’re at least talking about how the Legislature might operate remotely, if necessary.
“We’re fully aware that members of the Legislature have differing perspectives on this issue,” Milstead told the council. “Many may consider changes to the way the Legislature works unnecessary. But what we’re doing as a small working group is coming up with options for you to consider, if you choose to revise how you do work.”
The Legislative Council is comprised of 14 House and Senate members, including Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. It typically meets two or three times a year to handle various management issues for the Legislature, including appointing interim committees.
The working group Milstead referenced includes staff from the Legislative Services Office, along with the House clerk and Senate secretary. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, and Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, serve as legislative liaisons.
After reviewing what legislative bodies in other states are doing, the group came up with three basic options: a social distancing model, a remote operations approach and a hybrid of the two.
The social distancing approach “envisions you staying in (the Statehouse), but providing more space for legislators to conduct business,” Milstead said.
For example, desks on the Senate floor could be spread out farther. Some committee hearing rooms could also be reconfigured to provide more space between lawmakers – although that would necessarily shrink the area where the public sits.
The more crowded House chamber might have to be split, Milstead said, with some members remaining on the floor while others meet in one of the larger committee rooms, with the two rooms connected electronically.
The Statehouse auditorium could be converted into a committee room as well, he said. And depending on the time of the meetings, the House and Senate chambers could be used for committee hearings.
“Then you’re faced with the task of deciding how to accommodate public testimony,” Milstead said. “You could still bring people in (to the committee room), or you could use a Zoom webinar approach and have people sign up to testify (electronically).”
At least one state, he said, has completely eliminated in-person testimony and now requires all public comments to be submitted in writing.
That brought some pushback from Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, who said the Legislature needs to maintain the personal touch.
“I think we have an electorate that continues to be more isolated from us, and that gets frustrated because of that,” he said. “And the more electronic we become, the more isolated they feel. We need to keep an eye on that. We need to make sure that ‘the people’s business’ is as close to the people and as people-oriented as we can be.”
While supportive of those comments, Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said the Legislature also has to be prepared to conduct business remotely, if that becomes necessary.
“We cannot let the people of Idaho down next session by saying, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, but we really didn’t have time to hear you. Or logistically your phone or your computer didn’t work,’” he said.
Those technological issues will present significant challenges if the Legislature does shift to remote operations, Milstead said.
“What does ‘remote work’ even mean?” he asked. “Will members attend committee meetings or floor sessions electronically from their offices here (in the Statehouse), or will they attend remotely from their Ada County residence or their district residence? These are questions the Legislature needs to answer. And it’s a challenge for staff as well: How on earth can we make that happen?”
The Legislative Council didn’t provide specific guidance for the working group, but there was a clear preference to upset the status quo as little as possible, while still preparing for the unexpected.
Moreover, the council won’t have the final say on whatever the Legislature ends up doing. Any substantive change in operations would likely require changes in House and Senate rules, if not in state statutes – either of which would need to be approved by the larger body.
“If we have a list of things that need to be done, then maybe a late summer special session is the best way to go,” Bedke said. “That will take coordination with (the governor’s office), so it will need to be fleshed out.” The governor would set the agenda for any special session, he noted. And given the “myriad opinions” in the Legislature on how to proceed, “a special session could languish as those issues are worked out.”
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