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DES MOINES -- Iowans for the first time had the option this year to virtually observe -- and in some cases participate in -- all committee meetings at the Iowa Legislature, which held its session amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republican leaders, who hold Statehouse majorities, say they have not yet determined whether those changes will become permanent ways of involving Iowans in public policy decisions in a post-pandemic world.
As a way to help limit the number of people in the Iowa Capitol during the pandemic, legislative leaders this year added live-streaming video of all committee and subcommittee hearings during the 2021 session. Previously, only floor debate was broadcast live.
And the Iowa Senate, using Zoom, allowed Iowans to participate virtually in subcommittee hearings. The Iowa House used a different streaming program that let Iowans watch, but did not allow the public to participate virtually.
The question now is whether those virtual viewing and participation options will remain for future sessions if the COVID-19 pandemic is not a public health concern.
With their majorities in both the Iowa House and Senate, those decisions fall to Republicans, and GOP leadership at the moment says nothing has been decided.
“When we returned for the 2021 legislative session, we took many steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the Capitol. Some of those efforts made us more efficient and more accessible to Iowans across the state. During the interim, we will look at what of those changes may be here to stay,” House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said in a statement to the Des Moines Bureau.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, had a similar response, delivered by his spokesman.
“No decision has been made regarding (whether) streaming subcommittees will continue next session in the Senate. We will be spending the next several weeks getting feedback and will make a decision later this year,” Whitver’s spokesman said.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said he hopes the virtual options -- both for viewing and participating -- are here to stay. Wahls said he participated in multiple committee hearings from his office in the Iowa Capitol and his home in Coralville.
“If you live in Des Moines, it’s a (heck) of a lot easier to get over to the Statehouse than if you live in Sioux City, or Dubuque, or Elkader, or wherever,” Wahls said. “So in my mind, having that virtual option for subcommittees is certainly worth exploring. I don’t see, really, much downside.”
Perhaps one example of the downside to virtual participation happened during a Senate subcommittee hearing, when a virtual participant displayed an obscene image of male genitals. The meeting’s moderator was able to remove the participant from the virtual meeting.
The 2022 session will begin in January, but lawmakers still could need a short, special session later this summer or fall to conduct the pandemic-delayed redistricting process.