Pandemic precautions impact Alabama's 2021 Legislative Session
Thursday marked the end of the first week of the 2021 Alabama Legislative Session. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alabama State House, like many others across the nation, has become a place transformed. Precautions designed to prevent the spread of the virus are evident in nearly every aspect of this year's legislative process, requiring elected officials, legislative staff, lobbyists, and members of the public to make significant adjustments to the ways that they engage the lawmaking process in Montgomery.
While COVID-19 poses serious potential health threats to the general public, the virus also poses an additional threat to the state's ability to function at the legislative level. If an outbreak occurs in either the House or the Senate, or both, then the engine that drives Alabama's policy could grind to a halt. In the event that legislators are kept from working due to quarantine requirements or infection, establishing quorum could be a challenge. And without quorum, not much progress can be made. Moreover, an outbreak could prevent the legislature from meeting its constitutional obligation to pass the Senate General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets.
To prevent such a scenario, the Alabama State House has put new protective measures into place. One of the most striking changes for 2021 is the switch to digital device voting for state representatives. While committee chairpersons will continue to sit on the floor of the House chambers and vote via traditional means, other representatives will use iPads to cast their votes. When members want to speak, they can signal to the Speaker via the iPad application.
The Alabama House has 105 members, making social distancing a challenge. State representatives who are not sitting on the chamber floor will occupy the House's upper gallery and two designated overflow rooms on the sixth floor of the building. On Wednesday, the House further updated its rules to accommodate the COVID-19 precautions that have already been implemented.
House Resolution 15, sponsored by Rules Committee Chairman Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), formally extends the rules of the House Chamber to the House Gallery and the two overflow rooms that state representatives will occupy. The resolution also provided for the punishment of elected officials who endanger the health and safety of others. Anccording to the new rules, anyone can be removed from the chamber, a committee meeting, or the building if they fail to wear a mask or observe social distancing.
Lobbyists and citizens will also lose some of their direct access to lawmakers. In previous years, both groups were allowed to view legislative proceedings from the House and Senate galleries as well as committee rooms. Under the new rules, lobbyists and citizens must now either call or email elected officials in order to communicate. Lobbying elected officials in the hallways of the state house, a common practice during pre-COVID-19 legislative sessions, is no longer allowed. In-person meetings with legislators will require an appointment and can only take place in designated spaces within the state house.
If a member of the public wants to speak about legislation during a public hearing or committee meeting, she must contact the committee in advance in order to be placed on the agenda. All guests of the Alabama State House will be required to submit to a temperature check before being admitted into the building. Visitors to the state house must also wear masks and observe social distancing guidelines.
Although the 2021 Legislative Session will look and feel markedly different from those of years past, legislators and state house employees remain optimistic about doing the work work of representing Alabama's citizens. After passing the updated rules for the House, Rep. Mike Jones expressed his desire for a return to the pre-COVID approach to legislating. “We hope that after the vaccine has proliferated the state that we can get back to more normalcy."
Undoubtedly, many Alabamians and many Americans share that same hope.