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Wednesday March 22nd

State legislators cope with the challenges presented by COVID-19

<p>The North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 29, 2020.</p>
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The North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 29, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the everyday lives of many across the state, getting in the way of social and professional obligations, and the General Assembly is no exception.

North Carolina legislators are trying to find ways to continue governing the state despite the complications presented by the outbreak.

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Many meetings have been suspended and moved to a remote setting in order to prevent further transmission of the virus. While this helps keep legislators and their staff safe, it may interfere with the work being done to ensure an effective state government.

N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange and Caswell, is one of many lawmakers to have pointed out just how different working online or over the phone can be compared to working alongside colleagues.

He said being in the same place at the same time allows for easy access to staff, advisers and the rest of his peers in the House chamber, which he said helps move things along more quickly than they might otherwise.

Meyer acknowledged there are some positive aspects to working remotely, namely increased transparency. He said committee members usually only ask questions behind closed doors during regular legislative sessions, and working remotely has provided him with a better sense of what was going on in the House.

However, he said the quality of the debates being held remotely does not compare to what it was like in person, and hopes there will be a return to more personal meeting settings when the time comes to debate more serious legislation.

“I really hope that when we get to debating actual bills, that we can be back in a common space,” Meyer said. “Because debating via web meetings does not feel as effective nor as compassionate to opposing views.”

N.C. Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, has also expressed a desire to return to in-person interactions, which she said were highly conducive to the legislative process.

She said remote meetings have made it more difficult to build upon the relationships she has with her colleagues. She said she believes it’s possible to adapt to the online setting for debate, but being able to exchange information, develop bonds of trust and have a more personal interaction with others was more difficult because individual conversations were less common.

“How do you develop a compromise? How do you make suggestions about alternative ways of approaching things,” Insko asked. “You don’t really have time to do that when you have 20 other people listening in. Having a one-on-one conversation is a lot harder.” 

Another major issue legislators face due to the inability to gather in person was the prospect of voting on proposals in committee and on the floor. Now, many are discussing the merits of remote voting and how it would possibly be implemented.

N.C. Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, D-Wake, the Senate minority whip, said he was confident the General Assembly would be able to figure out how to work around the difficult circumstances presented by the outbreak. 

He said it was possible the voting period on certain bills may be extended because only a certain amount of legislators would be allowed to be present in the chamber in a given moment. Another option he mentioned was the possibility of voting in a location that is large enough for members to be present while remaining six feet apart.

“My sense is the General Assembly will determine a way to practice social distancing while still carrying out its legislative business,” Chaudhuri said. 

Insko said there were plans being worked out, but she was not aware of the specifics yet. However, she said she did receive an email from N.C. Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, the House minority leader, confirming members would be able to vote remotely and their votes would be recorded as if they were in session.

Neither N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, nor Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, have elaborated upon plans to implement remote voting in their respective chambers. However, both chambers are working to solve COVID-19-related issues, and the N.C. House has formed a special select committee on COVID-19, which is divided into four working groups: health care, economic support, continuity of state operations and education. 

The General Assembly is set to go back into session on April 28. Legislators are meeting remotely, and those who wish to listen to these special sessions can tune in here


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