Analysis: Amid virus worry, public skips legislative session
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — In a typical Louisiana legislative session, people with disabilities and their families pack budget hearing rooms seeking dollars for health assistance programs, all wearing yellow T-shirts that have become ubiquitous with their cause. Their heartbreaking stories of mental and physical impairments that require round-the-clock care often bring lawmakers to tears.
But in this atypical session in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the yellow-shirted families have stayed home, refusing to risk their safety to tell those stories.
They’re not alone.
As lawmakers roll through a session where they’re considering many issues that impact the state’s 4.6 million residents, far fewer people are showing up to weigh in on those debates amid the virus outbreak, which has killed about 2,600 people in Louisiana.
“Legislators need to recognize that they’re missing a lot of information about issues they’re considering. They’re missing the perspectives of the people that they’re impacting,” said Shawn Fleming, interim executive director of the Louisiana Developmental Disabilities Council. “I think they’re trying. But it’s not the same.”
Whether because of health fears, logistical problems or financial hurdles caused by the highly contagious virus, public participation is very obviously down at the Louisiana Capitol this session.
“All you have to do is look around the building. Nobody’s here,” said Scott Sternberg, a lawyer for the Louisiana Press Association.
Bills that once faced lengthy debates in committee have sailed through hearings. Few people are attending House and Senate floor debates, which involve virus response and many other topics. A recent House budget hearing to get feedback from the general public, a hearing that often stretches across a full day or more, lasted less than two hours.
Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, both Republicans, say they believe they’ve done a good job to accommodate the public in an unprecedented situation. Cortez said those who don’t want to visit the Capitol in person can send an email or letter, file their comments into the legislative record and call their senator or representative to discuss legislation.
“I feel like public access is as available as it can be under the circumstances,” said Houma Rep. Tanner Magee, the House’s second-ranking Republican. But he noted things aren’t the same: “Going to Rouses (supermarket) is different. The public’s not going to be there like they were before. It’s part of the times that we live in.”
He said lawmakers are doing the best they can in a crisis, learning as they go.
Masks and gloves are provided to the public at the Capitol if they want to wear them protectively. Temperatures are taken to enter the building, and committee hearings are staggered to lessen building traffic.
The House and Senate include provisions on committee notices saying people “who do not feel comfortable giving testimony in person” can submit statements. But those statements are rarely read in hearings or posted online for viewing.
“If you don’t go down there, you’re not going to really be a part of the discussion,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonpartisan government watchdog organization. “There’s nothing that compares to actually being there.”
For those watching from home, they’ve encountered failing livestreams of hearings and other glitches. Open meetings law advocates say the Legislature should do more to allow people to submit video testimony and to dial in to meetings from afar.
Sternberg notes that local government agencies are holding Zoom meetings and using other technology. He said while the Legislature must meet in person, “it was a huge mistake” for the House and Senate to skip creating a way to take virtual testimony.
“Let’s come up with a way for the public to participate in the process, because it’s dangerous for them to be here,” Sternberg said. Of video conference meetings, he said: “This is so simple that my 6-year-old does it with his kindergarten class. It’s not rocket science.”
Scott pointed to bills moving through the Legislature that would create a framework for public bodies to hold meetings remotely during declared emergencies — and to set up ways for public participation remotely — as an indication lawmakers understand the problems. He sees a strong opportunity to broaden access long-term by embracing technology.
“If you do videoconferencing and you do it right, you bring more people into the process,” he said.
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