When the 2021 session of the Minnesota Legislature convenes on Tuesday, it will be an opening day unlike any other in state history.
For starters, Minnesotans won’t be able to get into the Capitol to see what’s going on.
The seat of state government is closed to the public, at least for now, under an executive order that Gov. Tim Walz issued in response to COVID-19.
The doors to the Capitol and the neighboring legislative office building are locked, and the majestic 115-year-old domed building is surrounded by a chain-link fence, erected after the death of George Floyd in police custody last spring sparked riots that posed threats to public buildings across the Twin Cities.
The only people allowed in the building at the start of the session will be lawmakers, constitutional officers, legislative and governor’s staff members, security personnel and news media staff with press credentials.
But that doesn’t mean your voice won’t be heard.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Legislative leaders are making sure the public can see, hear and express views virtually. All committee hearings and floor sessions will be accessible online via Zoom or webcasts. The leaders also are encouraging members to bolster communications with their constituents and other interested parties.
Lawmakers have shown they can work remotely. After the coronavirus erupted last March, the Legislature shut down almost all in-person operations, conducted their business online and communicated by phone, text messages and emails.
During those nine months, they passed the largest public works bonding bill in state history, provided emergency relief for businesses, extended unemployment benefits, enacted police reforms and tweaked the state budget. “So I don’t think the record shows we can’t do our jobs remotely,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said in an interview.
But it didn’t always go smoothly. For instance, it took them until October to pass the bonding bill they had expected to vote on by May.
HOUSE TAKING CAUTIOUS APPROACH
Until public health officials say it’s safe for lawmakers to meet in person, Winkler said the House will conduct committee hearings remotely, close its offices to the public, direct staff to work from home and only allow the small number of members on the House floor that are required to meet the chamber’s constitutional obligations.
He said committees will be required to provide adequate public notice so people will have an opportunity to testify, and House leaders have instructed DFL members to make extra efforts to communicate with constituents and other interested parties “so that everyone knows what’s going on to the maximum extent possible.”
But won’t it be harder for citizens to twist a lawmaker’s arm if they can’t be there in person?
“I think the public can participate as well or better — as long as they have access to technology,” Winkler said. “In fact, in many ways, being able to participate remotely opens us up to broader participation from around the state because people can testify and participate in committee hearings from wherever they live. They won’t have to drive all the way to St. Paul.”
SENATE PUSHING TO REOPEN
The Republican-controlled Senate will be somewhat more open to the public.
“In the Senate, people are going to be able to make appointments to visit legislators,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. In-person visits will be strictly limited, and safety precautions will be required.
During the opening weeks of the session, the Senate will conduct most of its business remotely, Gazelka said. But he wants committees to move to a hybrid format — a mix of online and in-person meetings — as soon as it’s safe to do so.
To speed up that transition, Senate Republicans have appointed fewer members to each committee so they can practice social distancing in hearing rooms.
Gazelka hopes to get legislative operations back to normal as soon as vaccines become widely available. That’s critical, he said, because lawmakers, lobbyists and average citizens exchange a lot of information in informal meetings in hallways and elsewhere, not just in official meetings.
“The goal is getting everybody back here because we definitely do better work when everybody’s here,” he said. “The big decisions are best made when we’re staying eye to eye, working through some of the thorny issues.”
HOW TO TRACK WHAT’S HAPPENING
- Minnesota Legislature website: www.leg.mn.gov
- Find out who represents you: Click on the “Who represents me?” page at www.gis.leg.mn
- Calendar for legislative meetings: Click on the calendar of the legislature’s website
- House and Senate livestream committee hearings and floor sessions: Click on “live video” icon on legislative calendar.
- House Public Information Office produces Session Daily which provides news and other information about legislative activities at www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hinfo/hinfo.asp.
- Senate Media Services provides television coverage of Senate floor sessions and select committee hearings, plus a weekly public affairs TV show, Capitol Report, and Session Update, which provide information on legislative actions at www.senate.mn/departments/media/.
- Gov. Tim Walz’s website: mn.gov/governor.
- Read the Pioneer Press and Twin Cities.com You can also follow us at Facebook.com/PioneerPress.
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