New voting system, distancing measures in place to protect House members

New voting system, distancing measures in place to protect House members
These tablet devices, shown stored in the State House Wednesday, will be used in the House of Representatives to vote remotely to ensure a safe distance between lawmakers amid the coronavirus pandemic. The next regular legislative session is scheduled to begin Tuesday, Feb. 2. 2021. (Source: Caroline Beck, Alabama Daily News)

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, on Tuesday explained new safety measures and demonstrated new electronic devices at the State House meant to create a safe environment for lawmakers to meet amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The Legislature is next scheduled to convene for its 2021 regular session on Feb. 2, and though legislative leaders say they want to ensure transparent proceedings, it remains doubtful that the public will be able to walk the hallways or fill the galleries like in a traditional session.

“What is a priority for me is I want members to be safe,” McCutcheon told reporters. “We have members who would fit into the high-risk category, so their safety is of utmost importance to us and we want to make sure that we can bring these members back in to do their work in a safe manner based on the health department’s regulations.”

Since the current House chamber is too small to safely hold all 105 members in a socially distanced manner, members will be spread out in the House gallery and two overflow rooms just outside of the chamber, McCutcheon explained.

Those members who won’t be on the House floor will be able to cast their votes and even speak on bills remotely through recently purchased Microsoft Surface tablets.

There will be 58 members allowed in the House chamber, 34 members in the gallery and 13 in two different overflow rooms.

House Clerk Jeff Woodard said the 105 tablets and new voting system cost about $120,000 and he has asked the Department of Finance to reimburse the House through CARES Act funds.

Members will be required to wear face masks and McCutcheon said members could be tested for the Coronavirus on a weekly basis while in session.

McCutcheon said legislative leaders have looked into using alternative sites that could hold all of the members in one space in the Montgomery area but no final decisions have been made about moving the location of the session.

Access vs. safety in a pandemic

The level of access the public will have to the State House is still unclear and discussions are ongoing with Senate leadership about how to conduct committee meetings and public hearings.

“We’re going to be looking at every angle we can, especially for our committee meetings, because that’s important when we’re talking about bills,” McCutcheon said.

Five different rooms will be used for committee meetings, including a newly renovated area in the Capitol building, and all will be equipped with streaming capabilities so the public may be able to view proceedings online.

Protecting staff that work alongside legislators is also a main concern for McCutcheon when contemplating public access to the building.

“This building is just not designed for space. The hallways are tight, the committee rooms are tight,” McCutheon said, adding that members could be more accessible to constituents who have questions via their phones and email.

Every potential contact is a threat to safety, the speaker explained, and whether it’s the public, staff or even service personnel coming in and out of the building, “we can’t just have open-door policies.”

Last week, State Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, who is slated to be the next leader of the 35-member Senate, struck a somewhat different tone, telling a group of county commissioners that ensuring public access was a priority.

“We’re going to have to have the (State) House open and people are going to have to have access and be able to understand what we’re doing in an open and transparent way,” Reed said.

So far, the speaker said he has not heard from any members who are not willing to come back to Montgomery for the session and he is having ongoing discussion with minority leaders on safety measures.

When the Legislature was last in session earlier this year to pass the budgets, some members of the Democratic Caucus refused to come back to Montgomery over safety concerns.

McCutcheon said some legislative priorities for this session will be continued work on mental health initiatives, improving broadband access, COVID-19 liability concerns for businesses, making tax exempt the federal stimulus money businesses and individuals received this year and other economic legislation.