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Legislative Proceedings in Unusual Circumstances

By Molly Riley, Elaine Settergren, and Elizabeth Lincoln

Senate Floor Session showing social distancing, April 7, 2020A few years ago we wrote about the rare occasions the Legislature has met in session outside a State Capitol building. Minnesota has had three Capitol buildings, all located in St. Paul, since the first was built in 1853. In 1881, after the first State Capitol caught fire, the Legislature met in Market House in downtown St. Paul. During the most recent renovations to our current Capitol, the House and Senate held floor sessions in committee hearing rooms in the State Office Building and the Minnesota Senate Building, reconfigured into chambers to suit the needs of a floor session. 

While we haven't found any evidence that the House or Senate have ever held floor sessions outside the city of St. Paul, the Legislature has held committee and informational hearings outside St. Paul many times over the years, including this year. The House and Senate have also held mini-sessions throughout the state.

In all these cases - floor sessions, committee hearings, informational hearings, mini-sessions - participation has largely been an in-person affair. But as the Legislature seeks to adhere to social distancing guidelines in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, this session has looked much different.

The pandemic has prompted unusual House and Senate floor sessions this week. Senators rotated into the chamber in small groups to cast votes on a bill. The House allowed members to participate remotely by phone. It has not been unusual to see legislators and staff wearing face masks.

And last week the House of Representatives held its first hearing primarily through "remote participation" by both legislators and testifiers. The newly established House Rule 10.01 makes this possible, and the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee was the first House committee to hold a meeting since the rule was adopted.

The Senate has also been holding meetings remotely. The Senate’s COVID-19 Response Working Group has scheduled several meetings to discuss aspects of the global pandemic, using videoconferencing software to facilitate and broadcast those meetings. This week the Senate adopted SR229, which will allow for remote committee hearings to take place in that chamber as well.

Photo credit: David J. Oakes