COVID-19 puts extraordinary spin on planning for 2021 session of Kansas Legislature

IT upgrade in works to improve communication network at Capitol

Capitol infrastructure is being updated to bring more sophistication to commuinications — something better than placing a microphone in front of a laptop speaker to deliver audio. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican and chair of the joint Legislative Budget Committee, is working on preparations for the 2021 legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Capitol infrastructure is being updated to bring more sophistication to commuinications — something better than placing a microphone in front of a laptop speaker to deliver audio. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Members of the Kansas Legislature will have standard hot-potato political challenges during the upcoming 2021 session, but their work is likely to require unprecedented discipline by lawmakers during the COVID-19 pandemic and adoption of technological innovation to maintain transparency in state government.

The Legislature’s information technology office has been working on an overhaul of visual and audio systems at the Capitol to improve the quality of communication among committee members and connectivity with the public. The project involves new cameras and monitors in the building, as well as a litany of behind-the-scenes infrastructure changes, that must be installed and tested ahead of the mid-January session.

House and Senate leaders on the Legislative Coordinating Council are scheduled to discuss next Thursday options for conducting the annual session in Topeka. Questions remain about how legislators would vote in the House and Senate chambers; whether committee meetings would be in-person, virtual or a hybrid; what level of office assistants, interns, pages and security would be appropriate; and to what degree public access to the statehouse could be modified without jeopardizing government transparency.

Another issue centers on whether everyone in the Capitol — including all 165 legislators — would be subject to a mask mandate. At this point in the pandemic, House and Senate members are free to remove masks during committee meetings or in their offices.

“We’re going to have a big discussion at the next Legislature Coordinating Council meeting on how this session may play out and what we are going to do,” said Tom Day, director of Legislature Administrative Services. “We’re doing as much as we possibly can right at the moment without definitive answers, but wer’e taking into account all possible scenarios.”

Day, speaking Friday to the Legislature’s budget committee, said the annual sessions typically required about 200 temporary staff, but so far only 100 to 115 have submitted applications. Some individuals have indicated their willingness to work during the session as office or committee administrators will be contingent on decisions about coronavirus protocol, he said.

In March, the 2020 Legislature bolted from Topeka in early stages of the COVID-19 crisis. Interim committees have performed their duties for months by conducting in-person gatherings and video conferencing.

Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said she was concerned about plans for cleaning surfaces, checking temperatures, maintaining social distancing and wearing of masks at the Capitol.

“I guess I’ll just state my concern clearly,” Wolfe Moore said. “Temperature screening is wonderful. I know a lot of people are asymptomatic. I think the cleaning procedures and having the hand sanitizers is crucial. I think spacing and social distancing is crucial. But if we do all that, and we come in, and we don’t wear our mask and we’re coughing, and sneezing or talking loudly, it appears to me, from what science has shown us, that’s a lot of expense and a lot of work just to expose everyone to the virus.”

Rep. Troy Waymaster, the Bunker Hill Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the cleaning regimen required in legislators’ offices during the session could be significant if lobbyists, reporters, employees and the public had full access to the Capitol.

“What about the offices?” he said. “If we’re going to have access to lobbyists and the public coming into our offices, is that going to be the responsibility of the cleaning crew or the office assistants? How are we going to make sure that the offices of legislators are going to be cleaned just as well as the public areas of the building?”