Speaker of the House Steven Haugaard has had coronavirus for two weeks. He says he’s had a fever the whole time and has lost sixteen pounds. He tells that Sioux Falls paper, “It’s been the most devastating stuff I’ve ever had in my life.”
Yet Speaker Haugaard still thinks the Legislature should get together in person for the regular Session in January:
Haugaard says he would not prefer a virtual session. He says valuable things take place inside of the capitol building.
“You can only convey about so much over a video link,” Haugaard says. “Then, there are conversations that you have in the hall or during breaks that make a world of difference. Plus, you know, if we’re expecting to have the number of bills we normally world, there’s no way we’re going to be able to get through those effectively.”
Plus, several legislators will be first time lawmakers. Haugaard says those in the capitol during session must be prudent in how they interact with others [Lee Strubinger, “Speaker of the House Recovering from Covid,” SDPB, 2020.10.19].
We have here another glaring example of our leaders’ inability to adjust their wants and habits to the demands of a changing reality. Sure, we’ve never done a full Session by videoconference before, and getting through hundreds of bills by wire would likely take some extra effort. Besides, going out to Pierre for Session is fun. Working in the Capitol is civic and aesthetic thrill.
But, Speaker Haugaard, you now recognize from personal experience how hard coronavirus is on people. You should be keenly interested in reducing the chances that your colleagues, your interns, and the citizens who want to testify before committee might suffer that disease. Now is the time to put aside your personal preferences and assumptions and make an extra effort to legislate safely.
And look at the positives of a remote Session:
- The Legislature allows remote testimony right now, but folks who have the time and leisure to make the trip to Pierre may enjoy an advantage with in-person committee testimony. Taking all testimony online would put all citizens on an equal footing before committees and potentially widen citizen participation.
- Legislators would not have to travel as much, and you’d still get your per diem (which, of course, you could all agree to donate to medical research, masks for school children…).
- Legislators would be better rested sleeping in their own beds.
- When a blizzard bears down on Pierre, you won’t have to recess early so everyone can race home before the roads close; you can keep on speechifying and voting right through the storm.
We need to adjust our thinking to the reality of the pandemic. Our state has embraced policies that guarantee coronavirus will not subside in time for Session. We thus cannot count on business as usual, especially not business that, in Haugaard’s inflexible conception, has to happen with great dropletty face-to-face conversations in one crowded building in winter.
Of course, if Speaker Haugaard lacks the imagination and flexibility to learn from his disease and adopt new ways of legislating, maybe his challenger, Michelle Hentschel of Brandon, can show more ability to adapt to changing times and public health imperatives.