Coronavirus putting future of state bills, grassroots efforts in jeopardy

Legislation that was on the table this year may not get passed.

May 17, 2020, 12:00 PM

Across the country, statehouses were in the middle of their legislative sessions and in some cases, debating bills, budgets and other legislative measures that would reshape parts of the country as lawmakers settled into 2020.

Marijuana legalization, tougher gun control regulations, expanded voting rights and jail reform were all on the table in states such as California, Georgia, Kentucky and New York. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit -- putting a pause on all discussions not related to the pandemic.

As of Friday, 14 states have postponed their legislative sessions because of the pandemic, 23 have adjourned their sessions for weeks and 15 states haven't approved state budgets, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan nongovernmental organization that keeps track and advises statehouses.

Stella Rouse, the director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, told ABC News that the changes to the legislative process not only put those bills on pause, but also diminishes the power of constituents from participating in democracy.

"I think it's a pretty big problem," she told ABC News. "For lobbyists and other groups, a lot of their strategy is face-to-face meeting or catching [state leaders] in the hall and getting their ear. That's impossible now."

Advocacy groups big and small acknowledged they've hit roadblocks in their campaigns and activities over the last few months, but at the same time, the pandemic has forced them to get more creative with their missions.

The Assembly Transportation Committee meets in the Assembly Chambers where they can practice social distancing, during a committee hearing in Sacramento, Calif., May 4, 2020.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Legislation on hold

Some states were able to complete many aspects of their sessions before March and passed comprehensive bills. Virginia's legislature, for example, passed several gun control bills, a bill that made Election Day a state holiday and ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.

In Georgia, the state Senate unanimously passed legislation known as the "Second Chance" bill that would have allowed former nonviolent felons the chance to ask a judge to expunge their record after a certain number of years of good behavior. The bill, which had bipartisan support, was awaiting approval in the Georgia House of Representatives, but the statehouse has been adjourned until June at the earliest.

Lisa McGahan, the policy lead at Georgia Justice Project which spearheaded the bill, said supporters are worried that leaders won't take it up for a vote and they'll have to restart the whole process again next year.

"We don't have any indication of where it's going and that affects our bill," she told ABC News.

Karen O'Keefe, the director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said they had a strong campaign to push for legalizing and regulating medical and recreational marijuana in several locations. Connecticut was poised to vote on legalizing the drug, but their state legislature was adjourned in March.

Signs reminding people to stay 6 feet apart are affixed to a walkway leading to the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., May 4, 2020, as assembly members returned to the Capitol after a nearly six-week stop due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The Alabama state Senate and Kentucky House of Representatives both passed bills that would legalize medical marijuana, but even though both have reconvened, there is no indication that the other respective legislative bodies will take up their companion bills, according to O'Keefe.

"A number of states that we had been optimistic that legalization could happen are only focusing on coronavirus relief," she told ABC News. "We hoped this would have been a record year for marijuana legalization."

Voices diminished

Advocates say the biggest hurdle for them is the lack of access to their leaders during the pandemic, especially when it comes to decisions made during emergency sessions.

Meg Sasse Stern, the support fund director of Kentucky Health Justice Network, which advocates for reproductive rights in that state, said she was afraid when the state legislature passed a bill that would have allowed the Kentucky attorney general to restrict abortion access. Although Gov. Andrew Beshear vetoed the bill, Stern said there was no way for its opponents to speak out.

"We know that people in numbers, voicing their concern, can make the difference," she told ABC News.

PHOTO: An abortion protester stands outside the South Carolina House chambers, May 12, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina.
An abortion protester stands outside the South Carolina House chambers, May 12, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. The General Assembly came back into session to discuss a resolution to allow the state to keep spending after the end of the fiscal year to have more time to write a budget after the economic crash from the coronavirus.
Jeffrey Collins/AP

Christian Heyne, the vice president of policy for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said they've continued to push for common-sense gun control measures throughout the country in light of reports of increased gun sales. The group was advocating the passage of a bill in Maryland that would have banned ghost guns, untraceable weapons built by a 3D printer, but that was put on hold.

Currently, the Brady Campaign is pushing California, which has reconvened its state legislature, to pass bills that track gun sales and micro stamp guns, but Heyne said it's been tricky to get lawmakers to focus on gun violence without in-person talks, rallies and other actions.

"Everything is changed, your entire legislative plans have dramatically changed," he told ABC News.


For states where legislative work is still going on, albeit with heavy restrictions on public participation, nonprofits and advocacy groups said they had to get more creative, and in some instances, it's helped to bring more voices into the fold.

O'Keefe said her teams have been using video chat to coordinate their efforts and with other MPP members and the organization's economic teams are working to update their models to show leaders how marijuana legalization would affect local economies.

She said they are also planning on strategies to pick up petitioning efforts in Montana and Arizona for ballot measures to legalize the substance once those states ease coronavirus precautions.

San Franciscans participate in car protest to demand Governor Newsom cancel rent and mortgage payments during the pandemic, and to prevent millions of Californians from incurring massive debt, April 13, 2020, in San Francisco.
Courtesy Brooke Anderson

"If we continue the need for more social distancing, we'll see more remote advocacy and education. We can probably do some webinars," she said.

Emily Lee, the director of San Francisco Rising, a nonprofit group that advocates for various issues including immigration reform and expanded voter rights in California, said she and other groups worked to make sure their voices were heard. She helped to stage caravan rallies, where activists drove their cars in single file around San Francisco City Hall and the Capitol building in Sacramento, to advocate for tenants' rights and more safeguards to ensure that the state's upcoming elections are more accessible.

"No one will assemble in groups, but we want to make sure that these big changes are happening in the state," she told ABC News.

The biggest change that several groups have made was to their missions and campaigns. Several leaders said they've had to pivot their lobbying and outreach to remind leaders that their goals are important in a post-COVID-19 world.

McGahan noted that 40% of Georgia's residents have a misdemeanor or felony conviction and without a "second chance" bill, thousands of people will struggle to find jobs once the state recovers. She said she hopes the Georgia legislature can make the bill's passage a priority whenever it resumes.

PHOTO: Wearing a face mask reading "California safe," Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, right, attends a hearing of the Assembly Transportation Committee in Sacramento, Calif., May 4, 2020.
Wearing a face mask reading "California safe," Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, right, attends a hearing of the Assembly Transportation Committee in Sacramento, Calif., May 4, 2020. Assembly members returned to the Capitol after a nearly six-weeks, wearing masks and practicing social distancing by meeting in the Assembly chamber, instead of a smaller hearing room.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

"We understand that COVID has taken priority, but it doesn't make our issue less important for Georgia," she said.

Lee said many grassroots groups in California are ramping up their advocacy efforts and campaigns for rent reform and voter rights since the pandemic has exacerbated those issues.

"A lot of those parts of our society are hurting during this crisis and what is interesting to see is a lot of the organizations we've been working on have pivoted to work on immediate relief needs," she said.

The future

Rouse said it's unclear how state politics will operate in the coming months or even years. She did note that it is likely state legislators will be taking a long, hard look at how they conduct civic engagement.

"We're not returning to a normal we had before. The new normal will be about transformative ways we do representation," she said.

Some advocates said they feared the restrictions could widen the gap between high-powered lobbyists and grassroots groups when it comes to access to their leaders. Stern noted that leaders could have more opportunities to ignore constituents if the only way to communicate is through a phone call or video chat.

"I hope by the time the next legislative session goes into effect we are more adept at community engagement," she said.

Arizona state senators who were attending a session via teleconference are shown on a computer screen at the state Capitol in Phoenix, May 8, 2020.
Bob Christie/AP

Other advocates, on the other hand, said the adoption of new engagement methods could implore more people to participate in legislative processes.

Sixteen statehouses, including the California state Senate, Arizona House of Representatives, the New York state legislature and Minnesota state legislature, have adopted measures for remote participation and remote voting for their leaders, according to the NCSL. Heyne said this option has been beneficial for many causes since constituents have more time and easier access to their leaders.

"It's interesting we now can have people call in whereas it would have been difficult to get them to Sacramento during a hearing," he said.

Rouse predicted that more states would allow for remote discussion options for constituents in the future.

"Once the genie is out of the bottle there is no way to go back," she said.

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