By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama lawmakers and legislative officials this week said they plan to hold the upcoming regular legislative session in the State House, but the logistics of how to do it safely and allow public access are still being developed.
Under Alabama’s constitution, the Legislature is required to convene on Feb. 2, but the still-raging coronavirus pandemic has many concerned about how they can do so safely given the relatively cramped quarters in the State House building.
“The House and Senate leadership continue working closely on a joint plan that will allow the Legislature to fulfill its obligations while also safeguarding the health of lawmakers, staff, and the public to the fullest extent possible,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said in a statement.
Each year the session begins with the pomp and circumstance of the State of the State address, in which the governor speaks to a gathering of lawmakers in the historic Old House Chamber of the State Capitol. However, this year’s event, if it happens at all, will likely be much different, according to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.
“We expect there will be changes made to the State of the State production this year, but no final decisions have been made at this time,” Ivey Press Secretary Gina Maiola said.
There were talks of possibly conducting the legislative session in a larger venue than the State House because of concerns over the Coronavirus. Federal CARES Act funding could be used to cover costs, but State House officials say right now the plan is to stay in place.
“At this point the House will be meeting in the State House,” House Clerk Jeff Woodard said on Tuesday. “We will not be moving off site.”
House members will be spread out among the House chamber, gallery and two overflow rooms during legislative days in order to safely hold all 105 members in a socially distanced way and will be able to vote with a new virtual voting system.
Now the concern is how to safely allow the public to watch the House’s proceedings if the gallery is occupied by lawmakers.
Woodard said the speaker’s office and he are working on a policy for public access and would likely have a final decision in the coming week.
When COVID-19 disrupted the 2020 session, all members of the public, except members of the press, were not allowed in the State House.
The 35-member Senate will be meeting as it normally would in the Senate chamber, Secretary of the Senate Patrick Harris told ADN, and each member will have their temperature checked and be required to wear a mask.
Everyone who enters the State House will have their temperatures checked and will be checked again before entering the seventh floor, where the Senate chamber and senators’ offices are, Harris said.
Members of the public will have to set up appointments to see senators in their offices. The Senate gallery will have limited capacity and be on a first-come-first-serve basis.
There will be a limited number of committee rooms that both House and Senate members will be using.
Public access to committee meetings will also be limited but live streaming of proceedings will be available for each room and holding rooms where the public can watch the meetings will also be provided, Harris said.
For public hearings, lawmakers will have to submit a list of speakers to the committee chair beforehand.
“We’re trying to do our best to keep it as open as we possibly can within the guidelines of the social distancing rules,” Harris said.
Newly-nominated Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper, told ADN that making sure their work during the session is as transparent to the public as possible is a priority for him.
“We are going to have a hands-on deck attitude looking for ways to be as responsive to members, staff and the public as we can, while keeping in mind keeping folks safe is a top priority,” Reed said.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said Tuesday he hasn’t had any conversations with GOP leadership about what the session will look like but was told such meetings will happen soon.
He said lawmakers need to move forward with items “crucial to the state” and Democrats’ priorities include continued COVID-19 testing, access to health care and the expansion of broadband internet access.
“This pandemic has allowed us to see how our needs for (broadband),” Singleton said.
He said decisions about the session and access need to be based on the latest information.
“I think that’s what’s going to be driving this whole session, I think it should be data driven, we should look at the numbers,” Singleton said. “…I think we have to be very cautious of how we open these (State House) doors back up and yet still make sure that we’re in position to do the business of the state of Alabama. There’s a balance.”
House Majority leader Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said he is concerned about having appropriate public access to the State House especially considering the ever-changing nature of the Coronavirus.
“It’s all fluid and it changes daily, so we’re trying to work with it and accommodate as many people as we can safely,” Ledbetter said.
He expects high priority legislation, like the state’s budgets and prison legislation, to be some of the first bills taken up and wants to make sure legislation cut short in the last session is dealt with as well.
Lawmakers haven’t been given special priority to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before the session starts but many members could qualify for the next phase of vaccines because of their age.
Ledbetter said those lawmakers who qualify should get the vaccine if they want to but he plans on waiting his turn.
“I won’t do it until everyone else has the opportunity to,” Ledbetter said. “We’ve got people who go out every day and do their job, be it at a grocery store or teachers in schools, and I think that we’re expected to go out and do our jobs just like everyone else.”
Singleton said lawmakers need to lead by example in promoting the vaccine and he will get his as soon as it is available to him.
“If they call me over right now, I’m on my way,” he said.