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Behind the scenes of a special session during an extraordinary time

  

A look at how a special session is put on during a global health crisis

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — On the same day Gov. Mike Parson summoned lawmakers back to Jefferson City to address violent crime, a COVID-19 outbreak broke out in the House leaving legislators and staffers asking: “How do we make this work?” 

Parson made the call to convene an extraordinary session in the middle of July to address six anti-crime measures, from St. Louis police residency requirements to greater witness protection measures. 

“In general, special session is no different from normal session. It’s business as normal, but working at 20 percent capacity because there’s just one bill,” Dan Kleinsorge, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, said. 

But this session has been anything but “general” or “normal” as it comes in the midst of a global health crisis. More than 75,000 Missourians have tested positive for the virus since March. And in Cole County, where the Capitol sits, more than 720 people have contracted COVID-19 and three have died. 

As Kleinsorge pointed out, lawmakers and staffers already had a bit of a “dry run” with adapting to the pandemic: The first reported positive case in Missouri came in early March, as the regular legislative session was in full swing. As the health crisis persisted, the Capitol shut down for some time before reconvening with extra safety precautions in place. 

An abundance of signs pepper hallways and elevators, reminding lawmakers and visitors alike to social distance, wear masks, and practice good hygiene. Hand sanitizer can be found in every hearing room and corner of the Capitol. Proceedings, particularly in the upper chamber, became more virtual-friendly. High-traffic offices installed dutch doors or plexiglass. And members of the Missouri Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) stand sentry at statehouse entrances to check temperatures and inquire about potential exposures to COVID-19.

“This is tougher than any normal year. It’s going to be a little more challenging,” House Speaker Elijah Haahr said. “The whole point of doing all this is so we can have the most people in the building at the same time as possible.” 

‘The situation we’re in is escalating’

House Speaker Elijah Haahr and Dana Rademan Miller, chief clerk of the House, speak while wearing masks. (PROVIDED)

One of the “biggest” decisions made was to send people home to work remotely, Dana Rademan Miller, chief clerk of the House, said. In the House, about 40 laptops were purchased or procured for remote working as well as investments made into webcams and Webex, a video conferencing service. 

“We invested a lot in setting up remote, virtual private networks, so you can send an employee home with a laptop,” Miller said. “We started that in March and did more as the summer progressed. The situation we’re in is escalating, not deescalating.” 

And aside from allowing certain employees, like those in communications, to work from home, the largely paper-driven process of drafting legislation has turned into a more digital system for drafting and filing. Members are still required to come into the clerk’s office with a signature — but in general, the process has become more digitized. 

“The members seem to have adapted,” Miller said. “We just sent out a notification saying this is how it has to be for right now and didn’t really get any pushback.” 

Method to the madness

Sen. Doug Libla presents his SB 1 before the House Judiciary Committee. (HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS)

It was the Senate that kicked off the special session — and there was a reason for that. On the same day Parson made the call to convene lawmakers in Jefferson City, an “outbreak” occurred in the House. At least seven staffers tested positive for coronavirus. 

“Some of the individuals who had been diagnosed are directly part of the chain vital to the legislative process. They help draft the bills and staff committees,” Miller said. “We had upfront conversations with Speaker Elijah Haahr’s office: How do we have session?” 

“If we had started in the House, just getting the bills drafted would have been a big challenge,” Haahr said. 

But even though the Senate began with one large anti-crime bill that contained all of the governor’s priorities (at the time), the special session has been anything but speedy, already costing nearly $100,000 in mileage and per diem as of Aug. 20. 

SB 1, the flagship legislation, made it out of the Senate but stalled in the lower chamber after Parson expanded the scope to include concurrent jurisdiction. House leadership decided to break the bill down into individual pieces of legislation with the six original components slated to head to the floor this week. (No concurrent jurisdiction bill is scheduled to even be heard by a House committee as of Aug. 20.) 

And the longer lawmakers are in the building, the more concerns about social distancing and face coverings arise, especially in the House where it’s more difficult to stay 6 feet away from another member on the floor. In the upper chamber, senators’ desks have more space between them. 

State Rep. Peter Merideth has moved to implement a new House rule that would require representatives, staff members, and guests of the House to don masks inside the Capitol at all times unless eating or drinking. 

As of now, neither chamber explicitly requires face coverings although they have become more prevalent among lawmakers in recent weeks. 

“I’m hoping we see more adherence to [mask] guidelines. We get a little complacent sometimes. We’re isolated in a rural area and might think we’re not going to be affected by this, it’s only a big city thing, but it’s not,” Miller said. “We’re going to do our best to help keep the members educated, and I noticed during our technical session that quite a few of them who had gotten complacent had put a mask back on.” 

“I think it’s important to wear a mask because it helps keep other people safe, and it’s important to model that behavior and set that example,” Sen. Lauren Arthur said. “If we expect our constituents to do it, we should be able to do it too.” 

COVID testing

COVID testing was made available for members and others who work in the Capitol during special session using money from the CARES Act. (PROVIDED)

Another new element at the Capitol during the special session is free COVID-19 testing for lawmakers and those who work in the building. Those who wished to get tested could pre-register online and expect results in 48 hours or less. 

More than 200 tests, costing the state about $100 each, have been administered with up to a dozen DMAT team members collecting samples. Money from the federal CARES Act is being used to pay for the tests. 

So far, four people have tested positive through the screening at the Capitol. 

Arthur was one lawmaker who got the test done at the statehouse — and hers came back negative after about 30 hours. 

“It was really easy and straightforward,” she said. “I made an appointment online, and then showed up and everything was run really efficiently and professionally. … We received the results very quickly. I wish that kind of testing was available to everyone.” 

Arthur said she’s limiting her time in the Capitol — only being in the statehouse when she’s needed — but pointed to what might be a silver lining with all the change. 

“This has prompted a lot of thinking of how we can modernize our legislative process. There’s a lot of tradition in the Senate — and it’s important to respect and maintain it — but we should also think through if there are ways to do things that make the process more accessible and bring it into the 21st century,” she said.