One of the biggest questions on the minds of legislators, government staff, lobbyists and the public at large is what Washington’s 2021 legislative session will look like mid-pandemic.
No matter the issues we will be facing be it data privacy, budgetary constraints, COVID-19 provisions or organized retail theft – one key factor that will impact the upcoming legislative session is whether legislators will meet virtually or in person. According to Senate and House leadership we should begin planning for a scenario that looks very different than sessions in the past. Initial talks indicate plans are in the works for a mostly virtual or hybrid approach.
Similar to the format of the House Committee Assembly Days that took place in late September, lawmakers may only hold one committee meeting at a time to allow the public to have access to each session. Limiting the number of concurrent committee meetings might also be a necessity due to technological issues. If this is the direction that both chambers are likely agreeing that there may be a limitation to the number of bills that get heard in committee, forcing committee chairs to be even more selective with the bills put forth according to Tom McBride a capitol insider.
“Outside of committee meetings, other areas of legislative work that will be difficult in a virtual session including voting, bill testimony, unplanned collaboration that takes place in places like hallways, stakeholder input, and wifi access.”
McBride, also questioned, “in a virtual environment how much dialogue, how much debate, and how much collaboration are we going to have to be able to collect input from the stakeholders and allow for collaboration among the legislators as they debate these issues going forward?”
I’ve been discussing this with retail association executives across the nation and pretty much every-one is in the same boat right now. In South Carolina a hybrid approach during special session has required social distancing and masks required – as well as virtual meetings. They expect the 2021 session to be much of the same with in person session and a mixture of in person or virtual committee meetings.
In Wyoming they have tested out a few interim meetings allowing some in person as well but none have been entirely in person. Kentucky’s legislature allows public testimony with the option of attending in-person or virtual if invited by the chair. They expect the 2021 Session to be closed to the public at large. There is an effort underway to allow “registered legislative agents” to access the premises upon some type of screening protocols.
The challenge is one we all know very well – lobbying is a “contact sport” and not having access to legislators or the ability to effectively advocate is problematic at best.