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W.Va. Legislature Planning For ‘Socially Distanced’ Session

WHEELING — The one thing certain about the upcoming session of the West Virginia Legislature is it will look and work differently during the age of COVID.

Some members of the House of Delegates may be sitting in the House galleries during the session, and there is still uncertainty about how committee meetings are going to happen.

The legislature is set to gavel in on Wednesday, recess, then return for its 60-day session on Feb. 10.

The are 100 members in the House of Delegates, and spacing them out so they are socially distanced within the House chamber has become the first issue they will need to address.

Then comes the question of committee meetings will convene, and whether the public will get the opportunity to watch and listen to all the action.

“I believe the logistics are being worked out now,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. ” I think floor sessions are the biggest challenge. Also, the House Rules require us to be in our seats when voting. So procedurally we would need some rule changes.”

The House likely will be asked to approve any needed rule changes when it convenes for its organizational meeting on Wednesday, according to House Clerk Steve Harrison. Just what those changes will be “still are being determined.”

“We’ve been preparing for since last spring, since we thought there was a possibility we could end up in a special session sometime in the spring, summer or fall,” Harrison said. “We have been preparing for such a session for several months.”

The legislative computer staff worked to develop a software system that will allow lawmakers in the gallery to cast votes from their computers if needed. Harrison said members would be able to sit in the galleries to cast their votes.

Harrison said the new system has been tested during “mock sessions.” He added House leaders considered allowing members to vote from their offices, but determined that would be counter to requirements of legislators already in the state constitution.

“The constitutionally conservative opinion is that they must be in the chamber (to vote),” Harrison said. “But we think there is some flexibility to this for committee meetings that might be able to be done virtually.

“But we think that during House sessions, they need to be in the same room to vote.”

Committee meetings likely will be relegated to just two larger rooms used by the House — the House chamber and the Government Organization Committee meeting room — that are large enough for members to be socially distanced. Three other smaller committee rooms probably won’t be used, Harrison said.

There also is a possibility the legislature will recess the regular session this winter, and reconvene later in the year. Lawmakers definitely will have come in for a session this summer to discuss redistricting.

The state budget does have to be passed by the legislature by the end of June, Harrison said. Passing some necessary bills earlier in the year and holding off on others for later months is an option.

Del. Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, expects it to be a “speedy session,” with most bills being single referenced for consideration by just one committee instead of sent to two or more for discussion. Being able to hear the proceedings also is an issue. Many legislators in the past already have expressed concerns with not being able to hear on the House floor, and wear headphones to follow the proceedings.

Diserio wonders if committee meetings will be in person or done virtually from offices at the State Capitol. He said legislators have not held interim meetings for about a year.

Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said lawmakers largely have been isolated from their colleagues this year.

“It’s been a weird year,” she said. “We have had no interim meetings, and no Zoom calls. We don’t know how things are going unless we make inquiries ourselves.

“There is no way to check on how things are going with legislation we passed. It was a weird year for following up on items. Nothing as it was.

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, said she hasn’t heard anything definitive yet as to what plans for social distancing in the House will be.

“There’s a lot of speculation, but nothing formal,” Storch said. “I will be alright as long as I can stand. I like to stand. Sitting there is just too much time on my butt.”

Over in the Senate, where there are just 34 members, there is more space available to spread out members. Some changes, though, likely will take place.

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, it still isn’t known yet how the senate will handle social distancing.

“I hope we can have a full and productive session beginning in February, but if we have to adjust and adapt we will,” he said. “There are leaders in place talking with health officials. and I know it’s the priority of leadership to keep everybody safe — that’s for sure.”

The pandemic will make it more difficult for the legislature to gather outside the chamber to discuss issues as they did in the past, according to Ihlenfeld. A small thing like eating lunch together, he said, cans smooth waters after a contentious floor debate.

He said while that is a negative, he is optimistic lawmakers still can all get along and have productive session.

The greater concern in the Senate comes with how members will conduct committee meetings, according to Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke.

“We still have to assure the public has access to the meetings, and that the public can watch,” he said. “We have to make sure the proceedings are open.”

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