Agency: Legislative session at Capitol may be impossible

Agency: Legislative session at Capitol may be impossible

North Dakota state Capitol

The North Dakota state Capitol in Bismarck is offset by flowers in full bloom in June 2018.

The North Dakota Legislature’s research agency cautioned lawmakers Tuesday that it may be impossible to safely convene the legislative session in January at the state Capitol in Bismarck because of the coronavirus pandemic.

But Republican majority leaders were holding out hope that lawmakers would still be able to meet as they have before the pandemic.

“My intention would be for us to meet in the regular way,” House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said. “There are a lot of ‘what ifs’ and we got to cover those but it’s about us meeting face-to-face, arguing, and coming out with a product.”

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said it’s too early to predict what the coronavirus situation will be when it’s time for lawmakers to descend on Bismarck.

“I’m optimistic and I think we’re going to run a normal session,” Wardner said.

The memo to lawmakers from the nonpartisan Legislative Council, however, painted a more pessimistic picture.

“Having legislators, staff, lobbyists, and the general public convene at the Capitol for a legislative session likely would put these people and the individuals with whom they come in contact at a higher risk of illness or death,” the agency’s memo said.

Committee rooms and the legislative chambers at the nearly 90-year-old building are too small for social distancing, making it “impossible if not impracticable” to meet “physically at the Capitol,” the memo said. “Public health data show the disease disproportionately impacts Americans over 60 years of age, and many North Dakota legislators fall within that demographic.”

The average age of North Dakota’s 141 lawmakers is 60.

The memo came one day after a legislative panel voted to use $750,000 of federal coronavirus aid to livestream legislative committee hearings at the Capitol ahead of the 2021 Legislature to help ensure remote participation amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee on Monday voted to fund the project that includes enhancing web conferencing among lawmakers and upgrading livestreaming technology in the House and Senate chambers using funds from the $1.25 billion given to the state as part of the federal stimulus package approved in March.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman said some interim committee meetings held remotely from the Capitol chamber so far have been successful and have drawn good public participation.

“Conference calls are good,” Heckaman said. “Still seeing people in person is my preferred mode of committee work, but we just can’t do that right now.”

North Dakota health officials on Tuesday reported one death and 63 new cases of COVID-19.

Cass County, which remains the epicenter of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, had 56 cases on Tuesday, bringing the county’s total to 1,229. Statewide, there were 1,994 confirmed cases as of Tuesday. The number of patients hospitalized was 32 on Tuesday, the same as the previous day.

The death reported Tuesday brings the statewide total to 45. Health officials said the victim was Cass County man in his 90s with underlying health conditions.

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