CHEYENNE – With Wyoming approaching one of the most crucial legislative sessions in its history, state lawmakers held initial discussions Wednesday afternoon on what COVID-19 precautions will need to be taken to kick off the session in January.
While members of the Legislature’s Management Council didn’t finalize a format during their meeting Wednesday, one thing was clear: the 2021 general session will be unlike any previous one in the history of the Wyoming Legislature.
Under the tentative plan outlined by Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht, lawmakers would still meet Jan. 12 for the start of the general session to allow new elected officials to be sworn in and to elect new leadership in both chambers.
The plan, which will be further refined before the general session, would require all legislative staff to wear masks while at the State Capitol Complex. Face coverings for lawmakers and other members of the public, meanwhile, would be “strongly recommended,” but not fully required.
Obrecht said after initial discussions included the possibility of holding the session in a fully virtual format, as during the Legislature’s special session earlier this year, legislative staff decided such a setup wouldn’t be practical.
“As Rep. (Mike) Greear says, legislating can be a contact sport,” Obrecht said. “It’s just not something that you could really feasibly do – a long session over a virtual platform, such as Zoom, while allowing the level of public participation and collaboration and compromise between members.”
The plan also considers scenarios in which several lawmakers or staff contract COVID-19, which has spread at record levels recently in Wyoming. Though no final policy was adopted, the plan mentions the possibility of allowing lawmakers to vote remotely during floor sessions and committee meetings if they are quarantined or contract the virus.
Additionally, under the plan, all lawmakers and legislative staff would be required to be tested for COVID-19 prior to the start of the general session. The plan also floats the possibility of daily screenings, as well as a testing requirement for anyone with COVID-19 symptoms or who has been in close contact with a positive case.
Another top priority of Obrecht and the Management Council was keeping legislative staff healthy and available to draft bills, provide background research and assist lawmakers with other requests. Ellen Thompson, the Senate’s chief clerk, told lawmakers that roughly a third of the chamber’s legislative staff won’t be participating in the upcoming general session.
“We have several people that either have existing health conditions or a condition that would preclude them from coming, or they’re taking care of an elderly parent, or for whatever reason, they can’t risk having COVID brought into their household,” Thompson said, adding that up to seven of the staff’s 24 members would be unavailable.
Through the plan, plexiglass shields would be installed at the front desks and podiums of the House and Senate chambers. There would also be limited seating within the upper public galleries and outer lobbies, though a maximum capacity has yet to be set.
Special events, such as choir performances by elementary schoolers, will also be suspended for the time being. The plan also includes the suspension of the joint session, which kicks off the gathering of the Legislature with a large gathering in the House chamber, though lawmakers said Wednesday that they were looking at other possibilities, such as holding the event in the Cheyenne Civic Center.
During the general session, members of the public would be able to attend committee meetings in person, though the current plan would restrict the number admitted to allow for social distancing. If there are more people wishing to testify than there is space available in the meeting room, some would be asked to wait outside the room – a point that drew concern from Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper.
“Sometimes, it takes everybody in the room to land that piece of legislation in the right place,” Landen said. “I don’t know what options might exist there, but I’m a little bit uneasy with forcing too many people outside of that committee room.”
Obrecht shared the concern, and he mentioned the possibility of committees considering fewer bills as a way to improve the process.
“There won’t be anything about this session that will be perfect – that would be exactly how we do business – but I think we could figure out ways to make it work with this committee’s support,” Obrecht said.
Session could be delayed a few months
During the Management Council’s meeting Wednesday, lawmakers also discussed the possibility of delaying the general session until later in 2021.
Obrecht said it could make sense to delay the session by a few months for several reasons: flu season will be over, better weather will allow for more ventilation in the Capitol, vaccines may be available, and Congress could pass a new stimulus package by April.
“If Congress does act and extend CARES Act funding, all those programs you enacted during the special session will end Dec. 30, so if we get more CARES Act money, maybe (a later session would allow for) a bill to include to extend those,” Obrecht said.
Lawmakers didn’t take any final actions on possibly pushing back the session’s start date. Instead, the Management Council plans to meet again closer to the start of the session, when there may be more clarity on the state’s situation.
JAC to meet in Capitol Auditorium
Meanwhile, the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, which oversees the state’s budget, still plans to meet in person in December for its planning sessions, as it does every year.
But rather than holding its initial meetings about the supplemental spending plan in the committee’s designated meeting room on the third floor of the Capitol, lawmakers will convene in the auditorium of the Capitol Extension Building.
Under the plan’s current draft, state agency officials would be able to testify in person or via Zoom, while comments from the public would be taken remotely via Zoom, email or submission on the Legislature’s website. Obrecht said the auditorium’s technology will allow the hybrid format of the JAC meetings to run smoothly.
Lawmakers also adopted a few rule changes for the Legislature’s remaining interim meetings, which run through the rest of the year.
Specifically, for any meetings held at the State Capitol Complex, all individuals will be required to wear face coverings if social distancing of 6 feet cannot be enforced. Mask use for meetings held outside of Cheyenne would still be at the discretion of the committee chairs.
Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, proposed an amendment to the policy that would get rid of the mask requirement, instead making face coverings only a recommendation. His proposal was narrowly defeated, with the House speaker casting the deciding vote to keep the requirement in place.
“Frankly, I’m living this every day,” said Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, who coaches football at Natrona County High School. “We’ve got 12,000 kids in our school system, plus 3,000 adults, and it’s working, frankly, because we’re all doing our part. We’ve done a lot tougher things in our country than wearing a mask while we’re within 6 feet.”