Just when Republicans were enjoying their new supermajority in both Houses of the West Virginia Legislature, adapting to COVID-19 safety protocols may help derail their plans.
The problem is that there might not be enough room in the Capitol to conduct a legislative session as normal.
As reported by HD Media’s Lacie Pierson last week, members of the West Virginia National Guard helped measure each space and determined that the 34-member State Senate won’t have to move desks or spread senators throughout the chamber, since their desks already were a safe distance apart as long as all senators wear masks.
The 100-member House of Delegates is another matter. Its chamber is about the same size as the Senate’s. There’s not enough space to spread out 100 desks to meet COVID guidelines. The plan now is to have 52 delegate desks on the floor and put the others in three groups of 16 in the gallery where visitors normally watch House proceedings.
Those plans will allow members to vote in chambers as required by House rules, but there’s another problem. Votes are taken on the floor but much of the Legislature’s business is conducted in committee meetings, where proposed legislation is discussed and people may comment.
To comply with COVID restrictions, the House’s 20 or so committees will have to meet either in the House chamber or in the House Government Organization Committee meeting room. Those are the only two rooms on that end of the Capitol that can accommodate a meeting under COVID guidelines.
The Senate’s committee mee ting rooms are large enough for its members to meet and social distance, but there could always be problems with public attendance.
As the legislative leadership prepares for conducting the public’s business during a pandemic, it must also remember the need for voters to have access to their elected representatives. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens’ right “to petition their government for a redress of grievances …” That is 18th century language that means people have the right to advise or confront legislators before, during and after the session.
Local governments have adapted by going virtual — limiting the number of people who may attend meetings. Some meetings are conducted with some members attending and voting by phone.
The higher up you go in government, the less that works. Legislative rules require legislators to vote from the floor, meaning in the chamber itself.
There has been talk of delaying the legislative session or limiting its agenda. Whatever happens, it’s important that the public’s access remains intact.