SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers are meeting online only for the first time starting Thursday, after calling themselves into an emergency special session focused on dealing with the effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Only Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, and House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, are expected to be in the legislative chambers in the closed state Capitol — facing new giant screens rather than lawmakers themselves — for the session, which can continue for up to 10 days.
“I think we’re all going to be ready for all sorts of things. But we did do a couple of mock runs that were better than I thought they would turn out,” Senate Chief of Staff Mark Thomas said. “There’s just a lot of logistical things behind the scenes.”
That includes coaching lawmakers participating via web-conferencing software similar to Zoom in the special session that will be broadcast by the Utah Education and Telehealth Network to make sure they have a good internet connection in a quiet place with the right background and are dressed appropriately, Thomas said.
Because of technology constraints, work on the more than 20 items on the agenda will be tackled in one chamber at a time, starting in the House, Thomas said. Also, bills will not receive committee hearings, which are optional in a special session, he said.
“Just with logistics and how urgent some of these are, and just trying to come up with technology to be able to quickly do that, there just wasn’t enough time,” Thomas said. “Our IT guys are putting everything they have into doing the virtual special session.”
However, emails can now be sent to lawmakers about each special session bill using a new comment button on the website. Those emails sent to lawmakers can be viewed only by submitting a public records request, or if lawmakers choose to post them to the legislative website, a process that can take 24 hours.
The Utah Media Coalition sent a letter raising concerns about reports that the comments made through the new portal would not be available to the public. Media attorney Jeff Hunt said legislative officials have clarified the comments are being treated the same as other emails sent to lawmakers.
Hunt urged members of the Legislature to post the emails they’re receiving about the special session.
“That’s a great option for lawmakers, is to have those comments spill over into the public website so that the public can understand the debate,” he said. “That certainly would improve the public policy debate and the accountability factor for the legislators.”
Especially since committee hearings are not being held to take public testimony on bills.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Hunt said. “I understand why. I’m not critical of the Legislature for not having the capacity to do that. It’s kind of a learning process. I think if this happens again, that maybe have the IT infrastructure in place so we can have those committee hearings. Those are invaluable.”
House Chief of Staff Abby Osborne said lawmakers aren’t being encouraged to post the email comments online.
“If they want to do that, that’s completely within their right to do,” Osborne said. “It’s really easy and accessible for a member of the public to go in on any one of these bills and make a comment. They just have to put in their information, and the comment goes in just as they would testify.”
She said the session will start in the House at 9 a.m., then break midday so equipment and staff can be moved to the Senate, which is expected to begin meeting at 2 p.m. The schedule is the same for Friday, and while lawmakers may get through the more than a dozen bills and resolutions filed by then, the session likely won’t adjourn until next week.
The theme for the session, Osborne said, is setting up the state for “a slow, methodical reactivation” after schools, nonessential businesses and public gatherings have been shut down for weeks to stop the spread of COVID-19, through a stay-at-home directive from Gov. Gary Herbert and stricter orders from some Wasatch Front counties.
Lawmakers will also look at curbing the powers of the governor and local governments in such emergencies, as well as revise the current-year budget that’s facing a shortfall; boost bonding capacity; limit in-person voting in the June 30 primary; accept federal stimulus funds and speed up unemployment benefits.
Among the other legislation to be addressed is expanding access to experimental treatments for the deadly virus, providing liability protection to the medical practitioners seeing COVID-19 patients and getting workers compensation benefits to first responders who contract it.
“We’re trying to do the best to make sure we’re fiscally responsible, that we look to the end of this pandemic and we make sure our balance sheet is correct and we can come out of this on the other end very stable and sound and hit the ground running again,” Osborne said.
Utahns can tune into the session on UETN, which is Ch. 9.2 on broadcast television and Channel 388 on Comcast cable, or view it online, at le.utah.gov. That’s also how lobbyists and advocates will be monitoring the proceedings.
“We’ll be watching from our computers like a lot of other people,” Lauren Simpson, Alliance for a Better Utah policy director, said. “As far as the process goes, we’re really excited this is happening. We would really like it to be as accessible and transparent as possible.”
Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka said lawmakers are already being contacted by members of the conservative organization that is usually a formidable presence on Capitol Hill, with a message about “liberty and the proper role of government” in protecting the state’s economy.
“We’re all just in a different location but we’re doing the same things in terms in lobbying,” Ruzicka said. Holding the session online “does make things really different. You have to look at those bills and make those contacts. There’s no place to testify.”
This is the first time the Legislature has utilized a voter-approved 2018 change to the Utah Constitution that allows lawmakers to convene a special session because of “a persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster, or emergency in the affairs of the state.”
Before, only the governor could call a special session and also set the agenda.
The Utah Constitution also spells out that a special session can be moved if meeting at the Capitol “is not feasible due to epidemic, natural or human-caused disaster, enemy attack, or other public catastrophe.” A last-minute bill passed during the regular legislative session in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak permits lawmakers to meet remotely.
Other states are also looking at remote legislative sessions.