BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
While those seeking policy change at the state level plan for the legislative session year-round, this is the time of year when eyes turn to the upcoming session in earnest. This year, there seem to be more questions than answers.
Legislative leadership is now considering how best to address risks related to COVID-19 while upholding a transparent, democratic process. Currently, members of the public are only allowed into the Capitol if they have an appointment. This is unlikely to change for the 2021 session.
In a recent conversation with Hoppy Kurchival, Delegate Roger Hanshaw, Speaker of the House mentioned several additional changes that are being considered. They include:
- Strictly limiting the number of bills that the legislature takes up.
The legislature is obligated to pass a budget, so holding a session is mandatory. However, they may not be obligated to take up additional bills. Legislators may decide to only review the budget and bills that are deemed immediately necessary.
- Limiting committee references.
Usually, bills are referred to at least two committees before they are brought to the floor for a vote. During these meetings legislators debate, experts provide testimony, and members of the public watch the discussion. In short, they are extended meetings in which people are in close quarters.
- “Punting” usual business until later in the year.
A special session is already being planned for later in 2021 to address redistricting. It’s possible that the legislature could choose to delay reviewing the bulk of new legislation until later in the year.
As citizen lobbyists consider their goals for the 2021 legislative session, changes to the legislative process will require careful consideration, in addition to weighing the health risks associated with in person advocacy. Here are a few additional considerations that might be made:
- Limited access to the policy making process
In WV, legislators are relatively accessible to those who can make it to the Capitol. With in-person access restricted, citizens may find it difficult to provide ideas. Text, email, and phone calls will likely become increasingly important, so citizen lobbyists may want to work on establishing these connections before the legislative session begins.
- Reduction of legislative review process.
Committee references allow legislators to fully vet bills before they are voted on. By eliminating whole sections of this process, two vital elements are eliminated as well: expert testimony, and debate between legislators. Expert testimony allows those who know the issue best to provide information, while the opportunity for debate allows legislators to hear opinions that they may not otherwise have encountered. This leads to better amendments and more informed voting. With this in mind, individual outreach to legislators may be more important than ever.
- Lack of citizen input on what becomes a “priority” issue.
Legislative leaders set priorities each year which shape the course of the session. During a normal year, there is space for other issues to rise to the top as a result of citizen advocacy. Currently, there is little information about what will be considered priority issues or how those determinations might be made. And, with access to the Capitol and the legislative process restricted, serious concerns about whether these priorities will reflect the interests of WV community members may be raised.
Final decisions on the 2021 legislative process have yet to be made, and we will continue to keep citizen lobbyists and community members updated on what we learn about engagement in this next session.
Taylor Bennett is The Hub’s Community Development Policy Coordinator. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.