Editor’s note: The Active Age invited state Rep. Elizabeth Bishop of Wichita, the Kansas Legislature’s most senior member, to share some of her experiences during the 2021 session. This is her first column.
TOPEKA — Starting my third term in the Kansas House of Representatives, I knew things were going to be different in the time of a pandemic. But I was not prepared for how much things are changed.
The Kansas state capitol was built over four decades and declared complete in 1903. In this century, it was lovingly (and expensively) renovated over 13 years, being completed in 2013. When I arrived in 2017, the building was a beautiful reflection of its former glory. It provided a resplendent backdrop to the serious business of creating laws for Kansas.
Arriving on Jan. 11, we found that this 19th Century building has been MacGyvered into our highly wired 21st Century. The committee rooms now have two or more gigantic monitors hanging on the walls. The monitors allow for hearings to be conducted with members, conferees (those wishing to testify before a committee) and staff attending via Webex, a computer application similar to Zoom. The Kansas Legislative Research Department, staffers who assist legislators in crafting bills, attend hearings only by Webex.
Much effort has gone into helping legislators and others in the building socially distance. All staff and most (but not all) legislators wear masks. Hand cleaner is available everywhere. Plastic barriers have been installed, especially in areas to protect staff, such as around the speaker’s desk where staff sit who keep track of bill introductions and do bill reading, plus around the chief clerk’s desk.
But the biggest change is the seating of legislators in the chamber. The east and west balcony galleries are closed to the public and legislators are seated in both. On the floor every other desk is being used. Voting will be different. Typically, we use buttons on our desk to vote. Red for no, green for yes, yellow for present. These votes would appear on the large boards at the front of the room, a process that created the expression “to follow your light,” meaning to follow the lead of someone who has the most expertise on a particular bill.
This year we will vote via computer, a process we expect to use the first time the week of Jan. 18. We no longer assemble every morning as a whole in the chamber to share a prayer, pledge allegiance to the flag, rub elbows with colleagues and listen to bill introductions. This I miss.
In fact, we had only two meetings the first week where we all were present. The first was to declare the session open. We then left and returned 10 at a time to be sworn in. We met together one more time to formally declare to Gov. Laura Kelly that “the Legislature is organized,” a time-honored ceremony required by law. Normally the governor would deliver the State of the State address at this time, with members of the Kansas Supreme Court and other officials present. This year, Kelly delivered the speech virtually, and I greatly missed being part of this solemn occasion.
Legislators spend the bulk of their time in committee meetings. The committee rooms have also been spread out for social distancing. Since most committee rooms are quite small, this often entails meeting in two adjoining rooms and counting on microphones and Webex to follow the proceedings. The trouble is that numerous glitches in the technology make this difficult and sometimes impossible. Of the six committee meetings I attended in the first week, only two were able to complete the whole agenda, and that was with delays while staff worked on either Webex or microphone failures. For committees meeting in two rooms, often the microphone needed for the second room did not work. Tech staff worked feverishly to get balky equipment up and running.
The result of all this was a feeling ranging from stressful to terrifying when crowding occurred, such as in the small rooms and in elevators.
A positive note is the extensive testing being provided by the legislature thanks to a program developed by Wichita State University called the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory. This allows us — legislators and staff — to test as often as we wish with results coming within 24 hours. The testing utilizes saliva (ugh, I know, but better than a nose swab) and is the PCR test, which has a high degree of accuracy. I tested upon arriving and before leaving, grateful that both tests were negative.