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North Dakota lawmakers prepare for unknowns ahead in the 2021 legislative session

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The 2021 legislative session is now less than three months away.

Lawmakers plan to meet in person, with remote participation possible for those who prefer to go that route.

Many questions are still up in the air, including how exactly to handle public testimony which is essential to the democratic process.

“We are going to come in here with the idea that all of the 141 legislators are going to be here. But we know that may not be realistic,” shared Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner.

Sen. Wardner is on the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee which, last month, adopted several rule changes allowing lawmakers to work from a distance for the 2021 session.

“They are going to be in other spots within the Capitol so they can self-isolate and be away from crowds, or perhaps they’ll be back in their home towns,” Democratic House Minority Leader Josh Boschee explained.

“With Microsoft Teams, it’s going to be almost like they’re there,” Wardner added.

Several interim committees have already been operating this way most of the year.

North Dakota’s Chief Information Officer Shawn Riley with NDIT will be working with Legislative Council to make it all possible and secure.

“We’ve stood up the technology, we’re there to help,” Riley said.

Below is a picture of the way the voting result boards look right now, but soon they’ll be wired so lawmakers can vote from their computers, and it’ll show up in the chambers.

Riley says they have ways to ensure the virtual votes are coming from lawmakers, not a hacker.

He added, “If we were to institute a secondary voting system, there are also some other places that you can get into to do vote by phone, which would complement the Teams voting. And the two would have to match.”

It’s hard to picture now, but Wardner says the plan is to have people who are speaking remotely pop up on the voting screens too.

We asked both legislative leaders if masks will be required in the chambers and committee rooms.

“I definitely raised the fact that if we want to expect to be able to participate as much as possible, that I think it’s important at this point that legislatures and others interacting with the process are wearing masks,” Rep. Boschee responded.

Sen. Wardner didn’t offer an opinion but said that it’s still being discussed.

“The part that is kind of an issue is how are we going to work with our public?” Wardner continued.

He says testimony will have to be sent in ahead of committee meetings and they’ll join in via video conference or over the phone.

“That’s gonna be a little different,” the Republican Senator explained.

“We’re not going to have someone sitting home watching it, and wanting to see what goes on in this committee hearing, and then all of the sudden jump up and say, ‘I want to testify’. No, you can’t. You’re gonna have to decide that you’re going to testify before.”

Wardner says a certain number of people will be able to testify in person. How many for each meeting has not been established yet.

We asked Rep. Boschee if there is a certain percentage of lawmakers that will be allowed in each chamber or in the committee rooms.

He responded, “You know that’s a great question and something we’re continuing to talk about what that might look like.”

Boschee says there isn’t a cap set but it’s worth a conversation now, going forward.

Wardner says allowing for virtual participation across the state, may make the session more transparent, especially for those unable to travel to the Capitol.

Boschee says the plan is to start on time, but if it can end on time is the big unknown. He says if at any point it needs become entirely virtual, that will be a possibility, and the rules can be adjusted at any time.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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