As a state, we are about to learn the difference between what is essential and what is not. As commerce grinds to a halt, and expenses go skyward, the damage to the state’s budget will be nothing short of extraordinary. How we respond will define how well we emerge, and how we respond is going to require a change in how legislators do their jobs, and how the public can be part of the discussion.
As quaint as the legislative process may appear, it’s out of date. Legislators are having to go to Montpelier this week just to pass legislation that allows them to gather in a manner that observes social distancing. Consideration is being given to legislation that would allow a small number of key individuals to make decisions for the others.
It’s time to consider our digital options. Networks need to be set up that are secure, but that allow legislators to cast their votes digitally. There are numerous web-based video conferencing tools that could be employed to allow the various committees to meet and to cast their votes.
Irrespective of the coronavirus and our social and professional limitations, it’s the prudent and most efficient way to do the public’s business. As this crisis stretches out, the benefits will become even more pronounced.
And it will stretch out. The gavel comes down on the legislative session typically around the end of April, stretching into May. It’s doubtful the virus will have peaked by then, which means we cannot know the extent of the financial damage. There won’t be any way of forging together a budget that is meaningful. Today’s budget will not resemble next week’s.
In effect, we’re looking at a legislative session that may well extend into the fall, and probably should. Legislators will need the time and the resources to interpret the vast amount of information that will be available, information critical to making the best budget choices, information that needs to be disseminated as widely as possible.
While it may seem that a streamlined group of legislative leaders could make decisions quickly, that’s not how the process works. It doesn’t satisfy the obligation to represent our collective needs. We have a governor who has that authority. Our legislators — all of them — need to represent their individual constituencies, constituencies whose needs vary from district to district. And they need to be plugged in.
As almost all of us are aware, there are ways to connect that don’t require coming together. It’s doubtful there is a single legislator who doesn’t have a cell phone, or access to a computer. Let’s figure it out. Put the network together. Let’s move forward.
We need to look at this as a two-fold opportunity: First, today’s coronavirus crisis requires that we communicate in ways that include all legislators, not just the powerful few. Second, we need to look ahead to the next generation of leaders. If today’s crisis requires legislators to work through the fall, how many of our legislators are actually able to do that? How many have jobs or families that allow them to work the normal legislative span, but no longer? If we put a more digital-friendly process in place, one that allowed legislators to vote and to conduct business from home, or even the workplace, would that not broaden the interest in serving the public? Would that help in pushing public participation beyond the confines of the state house and Montpelier?
There is the old saw, “never waste a crisis.” The coronavirus has turned our world upside down. When it abates and we begin to right the ship we have the opportunity to rethink how we do things and to decide what is important and what is less so. All of this will require a change in how we communicate. It’s time the Legislature step into the 21st century.
By Emerson Lynn