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Bar Buzz: House committee meets virtually

In a harbinger of things temporarily to come, the House Rules and Legislative Administration tested the remote-meeting waters. Nothing sunk.

It was a historic first. The 19-member committee met remotely via a conference call livestreamed to the public on several web and social media platforms.

There was testimony from one member of the public, Minnesota Coalition on Government Information board member Matt Ehling, and a few presentations from staff.

The remote meeting also included two committee votes—another first—to adopt emergency in-house telecommuting and sick leave policies. Both were unanimously adopted.

All in all, the audio-only hearing came off without a hitch. But House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he doesn’t want to keep doing it.

Winkler, who doubles as the Rules Committee chair, said the remote-meeting format is only temporarily allowed by the March 26 adoption of new emergency House Rule 10.01, which can be invoked only during the current peacetime emergency. It has a hard expiration date of Jan. 31, 2021.

The rule allows floor and committee proceedings to occur remotely so members don’t have to gather in the same room during the pandemic. It permits “debate and voting to occur by means of distance voting, remote electronic voting or voting by other means.” But that can only happen at the direction of the House Speaker, and only after she consults with the House minority and majority leaders.

Winkler said the Wednesday meeting was convened as audio-only to take advantage of technology currently available to the House. Future meetings, he said, probably will include video streaming once a suitable platform is chosen.

Though things worked well, the usual free flow give-and-take of committee members and the easy availability of testimony from subject-matter experts and public witnesses sitting in the audience clearly is not a ready feature of the remote format.

But that is the unavoidable product of extreme circumstances, Winkler said. “This is not the kind of method of operation that the Minnesota House of Representatives should use going forward, except in a situation like a global pandemic,” he said.

The meeting lasted about 27 minutes.

On Thursday afternoon, after this story’s deadline, the Senate convened a bipartisan COVID-19 Working Group. That meeting, with video, was livestreamed on the Minnesota Senate’s Facebook page, as well as Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus’s Facebook site.

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About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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