The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Minnesota Legislature into a new frontier of virtual hearings and even remote voting by lawmakers, and some of those accommodations appear here to stay.
Despite previously being an institution where you had to be present to participate, there isn’t a clamor from those in key positions to revert entirely to the old ways. Any changes won’t come suddenly and they might be subtle.
Top lawmakers, though, anticipate their colleagues will naturally return to the Capitol even if they’re afforded the ability to keep their distance in some circumstances.
Day one of the 2023 Legislature next week will be far different from two years ago when many members took their oath in front of a computer in their office, satisfying the requirement that they are sworn in while in St. Paul. On Jan. 3, the floors and galleries should be packed with lawmakers and well-wishers at the start of a five-month session.
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“I think people want to come back to the Capitol,” said new Senate Majority Leader Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis. “I think people are ready to come back to the Capitol.”
Dziedzic expects remote voting and other virtual participation to be permitted for illness, family emergencies or those times when just getting to St. Paul is a major hardship. Doing so will require the adoption of rules to that effect because temporary rules have lapsed.
“We will still allow some remote testifying. I think that is helpful,” Dziedzic said. “We want to hear from Minnesotans. And it just makes sense. But again, from what I've heard, people are excited and ready to come to the Capitol.”
The 34-33 Senate divide gives majority Democrats no votes to spare, making the flexibility a political consideration as well. But in this case, there is bipartisan backing for rules that allow a virtual backup.
Sen. Julia Coleman, R-Waconia, supports keeping some of the COVID-driven changes.
“We discovered that we can govern and be more efficient and effective and open up the process to more people through some of the tools that COVID forced us to adopt,” Coleman said. “I think it would be foolish to eliminate all of these new tools and ways of governing and getting the process done when we have seen so many benefits.”
Before the shift, a member who wasn’t physically in a committee room or on the floor couldn’t vote on measures.
It came in handy for Coleman when her pregnancy with twins forced her to lay low.
“I saw that it enabled me to stay in the Senate to deliver for my district while being on hospitalized bed rest,” she said. “And I think every senator, if they want to serve to their full potential, should make every effort to be there as often as possible. But that isn't always an option.”
Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-Mankato, said there are valuable connections made when lawmakers are on the floor or in committee together.
“While we have been remote, albeit in the name of public health which is a virtue, we’ve lost a little bit,” Frentz said.
Coleman suggested revisions that would restrict per diem allowances to actual attendance. Others want to make sure lawmakers are at least in Minnesota.
The House is also discussing what to keep and what to tweak.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said COVID-19 is still around so it’s better if people with it or exposed don’t feel pressure to report for duty. But she doesn’t count weather as a factor for staying away.
“In Minnesota, it snows in the winter,” she said. “Snow can't be a reason that somebody would participate remotely, but I'm sure there'll be a discussion about it.”
For Hortman, it comes down to public access to elected leaders.
“People felt like they had less access because we weren't here and they couldn't just wander down and come in person to our offices and literally knock on our doors,” she said. “So I think we'll be looking to strike a balance between the public’s access and then accommodating people with families from all over the state and other issues.”
She hopes to settle on a model by the end of January.
Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said during a pre-session forum sponsored by Fredrikson and Byron law firm that “the Legislature is best when it meets in person. It’s important that the Legislature does its work in person from a transparency perspective, from an availability to the citizens perspective.”
One area where there appears to be agreement is with public testimony via Zoom or other virtual platforms. Incoming Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said that has been a big asset.
“I come from a district that's five and a half hours away, you know, 325 miles to my home,” he said. “This allows constituents and people from all over the state to be part of that process.”
The last few sessions saw meatpacking workers in safety garb squeezing in testimony in break rooms. Stretched-thin nursing home operators spoke during shift changes. An autistic fourth-grader took a break from class to speak about being excluded from recess as a disciplinary tool.
Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. usually appears before multiple committees each year – a trip of more than 200 miles each way and typically involving an overnight stay. But he favors being there rather than online when it’s hard to tell who’s engaged and who isn’t.
“In person, you garner the attention of that individual. You know, you're looking at each one, you can see everybody in their movements moving forward,” he said. “I think they're more apt to listen to you if they're sitting before them in person.”
MPR reporter Dana Ferguson contributed to this story.