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2021 Legislature convenes with new look amid pandemic

2021 Legislature convenes with new look amid pandemic

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When North Dakota lawmakers begin their legislative session Tuesday, the public will have the best access ever to the Legislature.

Legislative leaders spent $2.64 million in federal CARES Act coronavirus aid to ramp up livestreaming and remote technology amid the pandemic. Committee meetings and floor sessions will be carried live. And the public is able to submit and give testimony remotely, with a little homework involved.

"They will be able to follow certain issues that they're interested in from the committee room to the chamber, and if it passes and goes to the next chamber, they'll know everything that's said, everything that's done," said Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who led the upgrades. "It'll be just like they're in the room, and they won't have to drive to Bismarck."

'A better eye on the Legislature'

Anyone wishing to testify remotely will have to register online at the bill hearing schedule with their email address, name and some written comments to enter the testimony queue, Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said. Committee hearing schedules and bill information are available at legis.nd.gov/assembly/67-2021/regular.

Legislative information technology staff have demonstrated the process for lobbyists and state agency personnel. Instruction videos will be posted, too.

"It's not going to be real onerous. It's just a matter of knowing 'I want to testify on House Bill 1027,' click on it and go through the process of registering and getting into the queue that way," Bjornson said.

But remotely testifying without notice is most likely "out of the question," Wardner said.

One watchdog says the upgrades are "going to give the public a better eye on the Legislature."

"Basically it's going to be easier for people to participate remotely without having to come to the Legislature, which during the winter months is really a pain," North Dakota Newspaper Association attorney Jack McDonald said.

House and Senate floor sessions have been livestreamed, archived and indexed online since 2013.

But committee meetings, where bill hearings occur, are where much of the action takes place, McDonald said.

"Everybody knows that the real arguments for and against a bill are made in committee hearings, and if you were interested, you had to be there, literally," he said. "But now ... you can follow it from Fargo or Grand Forks or Hettinger or Dickinson or wherever."

But with the plus of the technology upgrades comes the minus of "no spontaneity" in testimony, he added. Sometimes people attending bill hearings observe testimony that inspires them to speak, he said.

"I think overall it's a better deal, I really do," McDonald said of the upgrades. "It's just that you have to learn to work the system."

Preferences for in-person or remote testimony will mostly depend on the committee chair, Bjornson said. Appropriation committees might want state agency heads to appear in-person, where policy bills might be better suited for remote testimony, he said. Committee rooms also will have limited seating spaced out due to social distancing, he added.

"We're trying to do what we can to accommodate as many people as possible, but it's certainly not possible to have as large of crowds as we've had in the past," Bjornson said.

The future of accepting remote testimony by videoconference will be up to legislative leaders in the 2021-22 interim, he said. Wardner thinks the 2021 Legislature will be "the beginning of this type of thing."

McDonald sees benefits with the upgrades, but also more preparations for people wishing to testify, and he has questions about how in-person testimony will work, given limited seating.

"It's going to be different, but everything else is different during the pandemic, so I guess this is, too," he said.

Masks and meetings

For people who do attend in person, they, lawmakers and everybody else in legislative spaces are required to wear a face mask or shield covering their nose and mouth. The House and Senate in December adopted a joint rule requiring face coverings.

The rule allows lawmakers to remove or lower their face covering if they can distance themselves by 6 or more feet. Chairmen will be responsible for running their committee rooms and can require people in committee rooms to mask up, though people may remove the mask if recognized to speak. 

Rep. Larry Klemin, R-Bismarck, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he'll require face masks or shields in the room, but he has doubts over face shields' ability to "actually do anything" to mitigate coronavirus transmission.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says face shields mainly protect the eyes and may allow respiratory droplets to escape below and alongside a person's face.

Klemin doesn't have a preference on remote testimony, leaving it up to people who want to testify. He already knows of some lobbyists who will testify entirely remotely.

State lawmakers are able to participate remotely from home if infected or from office space in the Capitol if desired. Wardner and Bjornson each said they have not been notified by any lawmakers of their intent to work remotely.

Potential outbreaks?

A state senator and three legislative staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the week after the Legislature's December organizational session. 

Wardner said legislative leaders have not mapped out a threshold for potentially recessing the Legislature or moving to a remote session should an outbreak occur. But he said if any lawmakers test positive, are asymptomatic and quarantine from home, "we're moving on."

"It would only be if people are really sick and people are going to the hospital, so if we have a significant number of people who could not do their job because they're sick with the virus, well, then we would make that decision when the time came," said Wardner, who added he remains optimistic about the Legislature navigating the pandemic.

Klemin said he's concerned about legislative staff becoming infected and unable to work. Infections and quarantines could interfere with committee work, he said. And it could be difficult to find substitute staff.

"If (an outbreak) happens, then I'm concerned that we may just have to adjourn temporarily and pick up when everybody's well again, and so who knows when the session's going to end," Klemin said. "That's why we have to take a lot of precautions."

The 2021 Legislature convenes Tuesday with addresses from Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Mark Fox and North Dakota Supreme Court Chief Justice Jon Jensen. Gov. Doug Burgum also will deliver his State of the State address. The addresses will be available to watch at video.legis.nd.gov.

More than 220 bills already have been prefiled.

Republicans control the House 80-14 and the Senate 40-7. The Legislature has up to 80 days to write new laws and two-year budgets. The 2019 Legislature used 76 days and passed 520 bills of more than 900 introduced. Lawmakers will meet again later this year to redraw legislative districts.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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