With COVID-19, South Dakota Capitol likely won’t be same for ’21 legislative session

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre Capital Generic

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The building will be in the same place, but what happens inside the South Dakota Capitol will probably be very different when the 2021 legislative session opens January 12.

The Legislature’s Executive Board has named a six-member subcommittee of lawmakers to work out a plan for responding to COVID-19.

Among the ideas discussed Monday:

Legislators, for social distancing, could have their desk spaces split between the traditional House and Senate chambers on the Capitol’s third floor and the fourth-floor galleries that overlook the chambers. Technology will be added to the House and Senate chambers so presiding officers can conduct session from them with legislators away in other places.

Committee rooms that legislators use on the third and fourth floors probably will have seating spaced farther apart. Witnesses could be encouraged to testify remotely using technology. Some rooms will get additional cameras and microphones for streaming audio and images from meetings. Committee chairpersons will need additional training for managing witnesses testifying via technology.

Whether lawmakers will wear facial coverings might be left to them to decide. During the Executive Board meeting, six legislators were in the room. Five wore masks. All of the staff who were in the room did too (as did the KELOLAND News reporter).

Lawmakers might still get to sponsor high school students as legislative pages for 2021, but the students’ roles could be honorary, especially those younger than age 18.

There weren’t any certain answers on college students who have traditionally worked as interns for the House and Senate Democratic and Republican caucuses, although it seems likely the applications won’t be limited to college students.

How lobbyists will interact with legislators wasn’t discussed.

Construction hasn’t started. The 70 House desks and 35 Senate desks remain crammed two-by-two in the chambers.

Amanda Marsh, who coordinates internships for the Legislature, said the application deadline is October 9. She said the Legislature’s leadership would choose interns in November.

Senator Brock Greenfield, a Republican from Clark, is Senate president pro tem and serves as chairman of the Executive Board. Greenfield suggested inserting the word ‘flu’ for ‘COVID-19′ in the many questions Marsh brought.

“The wintertime in Pierre, you know it’s a cesspool. You’re exposed to a lot of germs,” Greenfield said. He noted that nationally 6 percent of COVID-19 deaths were people who didn’t have underlying health concerns. Greenfield said the same issues need to be considered for legislators and legislative staff.

Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert of Mission said COVID-19 should be viewed as it is and should be taken seriously.

Marsh said interns feel they don’t want to miss anything. “They want to be here by your side working and doing what you need them to do,” she said.

Reed Holwegner is the new executive director of the Legislative Research Council that serves as lawmakers’ professional non-partisan staff. Holwegner said planning needs to include what-ifs such as a COVID-19 breakout during the 2021 session.

Alabama is reducing its House committees to five from 22, according to Holwegner. “There are some challenges, but I think ultimately we will meet them,” he said.

Representative Spencer Gosch, a Republican from Glenham, is the House speaker pro tem and is likely to be chosen speaker for the 2021 session. The Executive Board by consensus decided he should head the planning group. Gosch, who took himself out of legislative action temporarily late in the 2020 session because he feared he had been exposed to COVID-19, said the six would need more than one meeting.

Holwegner agreed — “How does this session come together? How does it proceed?” — and said he would continue contacting officials from legislatures in other states to talk about what’s worked and what hasn’t for them since the pandemic began its U.S. spread late last winter.

“It’s going to take imaginative thinking and deep thinking here as to how to keep folks safe,” he said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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