COVID-19 protocols limiting public access to legislative session

COVID-19 protocols limiting public access to legislative session

Watching remotely

The Legislature’s external website – legislature.state.al.us – has been upgraded to add  enhanced streaming video of all business in the House and Senate chambers, as well as the  meetings and hearings in committee rooms around the State House.  

As of late last week, there were video links to both chambers and three House and three Senate committee rooms. 

http://alisondb.legislature.state.al.us/Alison/LegVideo.aspx

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In-person public access to the legislative session that starts Tuesday will be severely limited and State House leaders are asking people to watch the action online and communicate with representatives electronically. 

“We need public input in what we do down here because of the things we do make the decisions on taxpayer dollars and public welfare,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said recently. But in-person interactions with House or Senate members will require appointments.

“You won’t be able to just walk through the front door and go up to the seventh floor,” McCutcheon said. “What we’re telling people is, don’t come to the State House anticipating to meet someone unless you have made some phone calls and you have a prior appointment.”

On the typical Wednesday during a typical legislative session, more than a dozen meeting rooms can be in use at any given time as the Legislature’s 50-some committees gather throughout the day.

Space is sometimes standing-room-only and tight hallways can be lined with lobbyists, representatives from state agencies, advocates cheering for or trying to kill a specific bill and the occasional school group.

That won’t be the scene this session.

Masks and temperature checks will be required and the number of members of the public will be limited. In the Senate, there will be three committee rooms with live stream capabilities for remote watching. Action on the Senate floor will also be live streamed and the gallery will not be available to the public. Instead, viewing rooms are available on a first come, first serve basis. Meetings with senators must be scheduled in advance and will be limited to 15 minutes.

For the House of Representatives, the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of the State House will be off-limits to the public and pre-scheduled meetings with representatives can happen in designated spaces on the first and second floors. House committees will use five committee rooms that will live stream meetings.

The restrictions are a concern to organizations that usually have a heavy presence in the State House, especially in committee meetings and public hearings.

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, said there’s not a set limit on how many people will be allowed in the State House on a given day.

“I think it’s going to be more focused on a number of people in certain places within the building,” Reed said. 

Space in committee rooms will be designated for lawmakers and staff and then prioritized for those who may be speaking at the meeting.

Any remaining space will be available on a first-come basis. 

Though many won’t be in the room where it happens, Reed said the plan is for every committee meeting to be live-streamed from one of three committee rooms.

“We would structure that to where those committee meetings would be able to be live-streamed, so that the action and activity of the committee, as well as the way it is in the chamber, that the official actions of the committees or of the Senate body would be able to be seen on live stream.”

Rep. Bill Poole chairs the education budget committee, which is often heavily attended.

“We want that public input, and it provides a great benefit as we’re attempting to steward the state’s budgets,” Poole said. “This is going to be a challenge, unfortunately, this session.”

He plans to continue the public hearings.

“But we also know that there are going to be some public access restrictions, so we’re going to make every effort as we typically do to advertise the hearings in advance, the hearings will be streamed and available online, audio and video.”

He said information about hearings and meetings will be on the Legislature’s website.

“We’re all getting up to speed on how to best communicate,” he said.

Asked if the limited committee space for live-streamed meetings may hinder the amount of bills his committee takes up this year, Poole said it may broaden the scope of legislation the House Ways and Means Education considers because all of the committees may not be able to function.

“But I also think that it’s important, in light of these challenges, that we kind of focus on the main priorities and try to get those right, rather than try to accomplish more than we can really focus on,” he said.

In the spring, most House Democrats skipped the last days of the session because of COVID concerns. 

House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, R-Huntsville, said he expects most of the caucus to be there Tuesday, but has told those with health concerns not to risk their life.

“We’re making other accommodations for them to participate in the session,” Daniels said.

Daniels was hospitalized with the virus in late December and received an antibody treatment.

“I was down for a while,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the virtual protocols being put in place for the session are fair. He plans to do most of his communication with the public and interest groups online or via telephone and text.

“Even though I’m immune, I want to make certain that I am leading by example and that I am not taking this virus for granted,” he said. 

Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, also recently had the virus. He chairs the Senate Education Policy Committee and said his communication with education agency leaders has probably increased over previous sessions. It’s just not happening in person.

But he knows committee meetings and public hearings will be “difficult.” 

“It’s going to be a limited numbers of people speaking on both sides of an issue,” he said.

Lobbyists who earn a living advocating for and against bills on behalf of organizations also face a disadvantage this year with the limited public access.

Sean Strickler is the president of the Alabama Council of Association Executives, a trade group of sorts for the governmental affairs community. He said that even though the word lobbyist sometimes has a negative connotation, they play an essential role in the legislative process.

“Normally there is one for both sides of every issue.  Without hearing from them, vital information will be lost and potentially damaging legislation could be enacted,” Strickler said. “No advocate wants to put an elected official in a dangerous situation where they are exposed to the virus. However, if they plan to legislate they need to hear from everyone. Limited opportunities to engage with legislators could also create a situation where an interest feels they need to sue because they did not have the opportunity to participate in the process.”

Robyn Hyden, executive director of progressive Alabama Arise, told Alabama Daily News that everyday Alabamians sometimes struggle to reach their lawmakers by phone or email. She’s calling on legislative leaders to be better communicate how the public can offer input on legislation.

“Alabama Arise is especially concerned that the meeting protocols currently outlined don’t provide guidance on public access to public hearings. We have seen other states host Zoom public hearings and committee meetings. Doing public business remotely requires more planning and preparation, but when done well, remote meetings could increase participation from those most directly impacted and improve the legislative process. We should view the limitations imposed by the pandemic as an opportunity to increase transparency and good governance – instead, it feels we are going the wrong way due to poor planning,” Hyden said.

The Alabama Education Association said that when COVID shuttered the 2020 session in March the association created “war rooms” in its Montgomery headquarters to monitor House and Senate action. When in-person rallies and visits to Union Street aren’t allowed, the association uses technology to mobilize its members. 

“Fortunately for us, AEA’s advocacy efforts are not limited to the State House,” the group said in a statement.

Joe Godfrey, executive director of the conservative Alabama Citizens Action Program, said he’s been assured by leadership that he’ll be able reach lawmakers, he said he’s already run into an issue.

A bill allowing for the use of medical marijuana has been filed in the Senate and assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which is meeting Wednesday morning. Godfrey said he’s requested a public hearing on the marijuana bill — he’s opposed — but doesn’t yet know if it’s on the agenda or how exactly a public hearing will work or how much notice he’ll have.

He said he was told he’d have three minutes to comment virtually.

“I know they’re in a difficult position,” Godfrey said. “I’m not blaming them, but at the same time they’re making it very difficult for us to do our job and to educate legislators concerning the bills that are coming up and to have advance notice, so that we can prepare for online virtual meetings if that’s gonna be the case.”

The ladies of conservative group Eagle Forum are a familiar presence in the State House, standing out in their signature red shirts. Executive director Becky Gerritson said they’ll adapt their strategy this year as well.

“We’re trusting that the legislators will make themselves accessible, like they have said they would,” Gerritson said. “We’re going to have to go be relying on appointments instead of just being up there all day, meeting with people as we can … I’m sure there’ll be a lot of phone calling.”

Gerritson said she’s hopeful as spring nears COVID protocols will be lessened.

“But we are still going to do everything we can to support the bills that we like and help pump the brakes on the ones we don’t like,” she said. “And we know everyone’s in the same boat. So, I don’t feel like they’re doing anything unfairly, it is just unfortunate.”

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.