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How Kansas' legislative session will function in a pandemic

Titus Wu
Topeka Capital-Journal
House Speaker Ron Ryckman walks out of the House chambers Monday afternoon. Ryckman will serve as speaker for a record third term this session.

In a normal year, the 165 lawmakers of the Kansas Legislature would gather in the Statehouse in Topeka on Monday to kick off the new legislative session, while countless others, such as lobbyists, staffers and members of the public, also would pile in.

But COVID-19 and its deadly effects on large gatherings will change things up a bit this time around.

"We need everything we can to keep people safe,” said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, during a meeting of the Legislative Coordinating Council last week. “For a business, how do we keep a business open? How do you keep your customers healthy? That's the same approach that we're taking.”

For one, many of the usual traditions will go virtual. Gov. Laura Kelly has announced her State of the State address will be remote, and so will Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert's State of the Judiciary address.

"COVID-19 has altered many of our traditions,” the governor said in a statement. “With case numbers continuing to increase and limited hospital capacity, gathering the entire Legislature and the Kansas Supreme Court Justices into one chamber would be an unnecessary risk to their health and safety."

But not everything will be able to go remote. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt had issued an opinion that bills passed in virtual meetings face potential court challenges and invalidation.

“At a minimum, a quorum of the Senators or Representatives must be together in a room to constitute a meeting of that house and to vote on final action on a bill,” the opinion said. 

With that in mind, legislative leaders are still intent on holding meetings at the Statehouse, but such meetings will look different than usual after walk-throughs with experts from the University of Kansas Health System.

Every room is expected to be set up for social distancing, with close contact limited as much as possible. Cleaning crews will be added to frequently disinfect spaces.

In the chambers, members will be at least 6 feet apart. Gallery space will be used to account for that, with members in the House spread throughout the gallery usually used by the public. There will be an electronic voting system for floor votes. Limited floor passes, or perhaps none, will be given out for non-members.

However, there won't be as many meetings in the chambers as usual, Ryckman said.

In the committee rooms where most bills get their public hearings, there will now be an option for those testifying to do so remotely. Doors will remain open for better ventilation and documents will be distributed via a paperless method.

Temperature checks are already in place, and there will be limited access to the Statehouse for members of the public. Only those with legislative business will be allowed in, but everyone will be able to listen in on any meetings via online streaming.

Masks will not be mandated in the Statehouse.

"Masks will be provided to House members and strongly encouraged per Statehouse policy," a document of COVID-19 safety protocols read.

Mask-wearing has been an on-and-off issue with lawmakers, with some having refused to wear one in the past and others insisting that colleagues wear masks.

For lawmakers, there will be testing available across the street provided by Marathon Health Systems, and physicians will likely be available on an almost-daily basis. 

Some legislators will be able to participate in committee hearing processes remotely as well, and rooms should be wired for this technology as session starts, Ryckman said. One can get a socially distant spot in the room or participate through WebEx. 

In the end, though, nothing is set in stone.

"Things will change as we go. And so we're asking people to be flexible," Ryckman said.

This is one of a package of stories previewing the 2021 Kansas Legislative Session. Follow Andrew Bahl, @andrewbahl, and Titus Wu, @tituswu100, on Twitter for coverage of the session.