State capitols face showdown over COVID powers and spending

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FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2020 file photo, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee talks to reporters at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. State lawmakers across the country will be convening in 2021 with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic rippling through much of their work and even affecting the way they work. After 10 months of emergency orders and restrictions from governors and local executive officials, some state lawmakers are eager to reassert their power over statewide decisions shaping the way people shop, work, worship and attend school (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – State lawmakers across the country will convene in 2021 with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic rippling through much of their work — even affecting the way they work.

After 10 months of emergency orders and restrictions from governors and local executive officials, some lawmakers are eager to reassert their power over decisions that shape the way people shop, work, worship and attend school.

They also will face virus-induced budget pressures, with rising demand for spending on public health and social services colliding with uncertain tax revenue in an economy that is still not fully recovered from the pandemic.

“COVID will frame everything,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The virus even will affect the mechanics of making laws. Some legislatures will allow their members to vote remotely, instead of gathering in tightly packed chambers. Temperature checks, health screenings, plexiglass dividers and socially distanced seating are planned in some capitols.

Lawmakers will be meeting as COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, first to medical workers and high-risk groups such as the elderly. That may spark debates in some states about whether the distribution plans should be subject to legislative approval and whether workplaces and institutions can require people to receive the shots.

All 50 states are scheduled to hold regular legislative sessions in 2021. In many, it will mark their first meeting since the November elections in which Republicans again secured statehouse supremacy. The GOP will control both legislative chambers in 30 states compared with 18 for Democrats. Minnesota is the only state where Republicans will control one chamber and Democrats the other. Nebraska's legislature is officially nonpartisan.

Though many of the bills seeking to limit gubernatorial powers are coming from Republicans, Storey said there are bipartisan frustrations among lawmakers. He expects well over half the legislatures to flex their authority by holding oversight hearings, reviewing administrative rules and passing bills aimed at limiting the emergency powers of governors during the pandemic.