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THE VIEW FROM HERE

Some changes forced by pandemic worth keeping

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The Australian Open Tennis Tournament is being played without line judges this year to reduce the number of people in the arena. And it’s much better.

A computerized camera system shows exactly where the ball bounced. There’s no more arguing about the call, so the game goes much faster. And we don’t have to worry about those poor folks lined up against the wall with 150 mph serves whizzing by their noggins.

Which makes me wonder if we’ve seen that last of line judges, at least in the big tournaments where they can afford the technology.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and COVID-19 has been one powerful mother. It has forced us to find new ways to do old things.

This year’s 60-day session of the state Legislature has been conducted entirely online, and it’s been a challenge. Debates take twice as long as they normally would because there’s so much dead time between speakers, and so many opening sentences lost.

The most commonly heard phrase thus far this session has been, “You’re still on mute.”

Beyond the strained debate among lawmakers, the greatest challenge has been allowing for public comment. Each committee sets its own rules, but all start by dividing supporters from opponents. Some committees will then give each side a certain amount of time. Others will put limits on each speaker.

For the person conducting the meeting, the new system is a whole lot easier than having to verbally interrupt a speaker whose time has expired. They just flip a switch and go on to the next person.

But for anybody with expertise on a complicated bill who needs to take a little bit of time to fully explain why there may be some problems the sponsors hadn’t considered, there really is no place for that in the process.

And, to ensure that their voice comes through clearly, speakers often will turn their video off so we can’t see them as they are talking. With no time to delve into details and no capacity to visually express emotion, speakers rush through pre-written scripts that deliver the same emotional punch as a telemarketer.

Because the House and Senate each set their own rules, the pandemic has impacted them differently. House Speaker Brian Egolf tightened their rules early in the session when a representative and staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Now, many of the representatives are at home, dealing with childcare issues, home maintenance, feeding the pets and all the other things they would normally have to deal with when at home. 

To be fair, they are putting in long hours six days a week on Zoom, and they will only get longer from here on out. But there can’t be the same casual collaboration and singular focus as there is when everybody is forced together for 60 days in the same building.

There are, however, a few forced changes that have been positive. Experts like department secretaries are able listen in on two committee meetings at the same time, and pop in on either as needed.

And, there is value to allowing the public to weigh in during committee meetings without needing to drive to Santa Fe in the winter. Perhaps in the future there could be some allowance for remote testimony to supplement what is given in person.

Everybody hopes they are able to get through the next five weeks without any more positive tests, and everyone similarly looks forward to getting back to normal next year. But lawmakers should take advantage of what was learned this year to improve the process moving forward.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel