Coronavirus Closes State Legislatures

By: - March 16, 2020 12:00 am

Democratic Maryland Senate President Bill Ferguson announces Sunday in Annapolis that the state’s 90-day legislative session will end early in response to coronavirus. Brian Witte/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

State capitols are emptying quickly as legislators put their sessions on hold and head home amid the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Already, 11 legislatures have postponed their sessions, as health officials urge social distancing measures and discourage mass gatherings. Lawmakers in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont have suspended or postponed their work, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Missouri Senate and Ohio House also have paused their sessions, NCSL said. Other legislatures, such as North Carolina and North Dakota, are not currently in session but have canceled some committee meetings. 

The postponements range from as short as one week to indefinite suspensions.

While lawmakers in many states have been working to provide funding or pass legislation to help with the ongoing fallout from the pandemic, they’re also aware that simply meeting up to do their work could contribute to the spread of the disease.

“Given the recommendations for social distancing as a safeguard to slow the spread of this virus, the Illinois Senate is going to do its part,” Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, a Democrat, said last week, announcing that the next scheduled week of session was canceled. 

Lawmakers are keenly aware that any transmission of the coronavirus among their ranks could be devastating, as they disperse from state capitols back to every corner of their states.

“None of us wants to be the vector,” Vermont Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, a Democrat, told local outlet VTDigger.

Many legislators also belong to older age groups that have proven particularly vulnerable to the disease.

As legislators try to respond to the crisis while also keeping their distance, the coming weeks and months may serve as a proving ground for emergency governing measures.

Oregon and Wisconsin already have rules allowing legislatures to vote remotely using electronic measures during emergency situations. Colorado’s legislature allows for “new or streamlined methods of operations” and may suspend rules in order to “function effectively during the disaster emergency.”

Utah is racing to pass legislation to allow electronic meetings. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it years ago,” state Democratic Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We don’t know what the future brings. We have to have these things in place, or we can’t function.”

Legislators in Connecticut last week revised their rules to allow committee votes by telephone. In Vermont, which requires members to be physically present to vote on the House or Senate floor, leaders are exploring how they can continue to work if not physically present. 

“It’s easily done for committees,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat, told VTDigger. “I have no idea how it would be done for the full House.”

New Hampshire, meanwhile, overwhelmingly shot down a measure that would have allowed members to vote from home if they were forced to self-quarantine. Three members of the New Hampshire House are reportedly under self-quarantine, but some members had concerns that remote voting would violate the state Constitution.

The Minnesota Constitution explicitly requires lawmakers to meet in person, meaning any quarantine requirements that prevent the legislature from reaching a quorum could prevent the body from passing bills to respond to the pandemic. 

Not all legislatures have yet closed shop. Twenty-four legislatures — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin — remained in session Monday afternoon, according to NCSL. Washington, D.C.’s City Council was still on the job as well. 

Tennessee was facing criticism from transparency advocates for continuing to meet while closing the Capitol to the public as a safety precaution. Lawmakers were seeking to pass a budget as well as measures to address coronavirus and the recent tornadoes that killed 24 people in the state. 

Many local governments will be facing similar questions. The Seattle City Council has begun holding meetings by telephone and streaming them online. Officials in other states may not have the authority to conduct business remotely, and smaller, rural governments may lack the technology to do so. 

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.