Utah lawmakers open their special session this week, but there's a wrinkle: All their meetings will be in cyberspace.
As they deal with issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Legislature will be one of the first U.S. public bodies to officially meet and consider legislation via the internet. However, government accountability watchdogs are concerned that the digital process could be used to limit transparency.
Lauren Simpson, Alliance for a Better Utah policy director, said she worries that public comments submitted on bills up for consideration may not be available for public viewing.
"It is important that we don't give up on public comment just because it may not be as expedient as some lawmakers might want it," she said.
The 10-day session opens Thursday. Issues they're expected to take up include the state budget, rising unemployment, tax changes, stimulus plans, local powers during the pandemic and changes to primary elections.
Simpson said legislators will not review bills in committee hearings for this session. Instead, each measure will be brought up directly before the entire House or Senate. She said she fears that will keep public input off the record and make it harder to know just who's behind the legislation.
"With that loss of committee hearings," she said, "I think it's even more imperative that we have a robust public comment process, so we can see who is having the influence on these policies."
Simpson said online legislative sessions may be a good alternative during a pandemic, but added that she believes they should not become a substitute for meeting face-to-face.
"I think it would be a mistake for us to transfer to online meetings permanently," she said, "but I do think it's a really useful tool."
Only the House speaker and the Senate president, along with staff, actually will be in Capitol chambers. All other lawmakers will work from remote locations. The session will be streamed live and on demand on the Utah Legislature's website.