A top legislative committee approved roughly $3 million Thursday to spend on improvements designed to ensure the public can watch committee hearings and other functions, even if they can’t leave their home because of COVID-19.
The move comes as top lawmakers are beginning to envision what the next legislative session, which begins in January, will look like as the virus rages across Kansas.
Most of the major decisions, including whether some or all of the Legislature’s business can be conducted remotely, are still in limbo, however.
But the Legislative Coordinating Council is forging ahead with the technology upgrades, which involve ensuring committee rooms and even conference spaces are outfitted with audiovisual equipment to broadcast to the public what is happening.
“Transparency will be better than its ever been in the pass just because of all the equipment that will be put in to take care of that,” said House Majority Leader Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita.
That includes better supporting meetings conducted over video conferencing, which currently can pose IT issues and be difficult for listeners to hear.
An interim committee hearing was temporarily halted earlier this week, for instance, after the audio stopped working for a testifier presenting remotely.
Other changes will include boosting the Legislature’s network security and ensuring the video and audio capabilities are extended to conference rooms in the Statehouse, in case they are needed for meetings.
The move is funded by upwards of $5 million from the state’s share of federal COVID-19 relief dollars, although the costs will ultimately be less than that amount. A contract is set to be finalized Thursday or Friday, staffers said.
While there was some doubt last week as to whether the work would be completed before the Legislature reconvenes, it now appears that is no longer an issue, with all technology projected to be installed by the end of the calendar year.
A more complete picture of what the annual session will look like in a time of COVID-19 remains unclear, however.
While the Legislature did reconvene on multiple occasions since the pandemic began, meetings were only for brief stints.
The full six-month session could require plexiglass partitions in committee rooms, closing the House and Senate galleries and potential limits on who can enter the building, among other changes.
It could also involve a potential requirement that members wear masks — something that could prove controversial. While some members from both parties currently wear face coverings during committee hearings, not all do.
Hawkins acknowledged the possibility of ruffled feathers.
“There’s going to be some people who won’t like it,” he said. “Some people will. It’s just our duty and our responsibility to make sure our operation does allow them to be as safe as possible.”
And staffing the part-time jobs needed to help the Legislature run could also be an issue, with some administrative assistants hesitant to return because of the virus.
Most of these issues will be settled in the coming months, leaders said Thursday. But members agree a robust blueprint is needed.
“Our members want to have assurance that when they come in we are operating in as safe a manner as possible,” Hawkins said.