As communities across the country grapple with challenges created by COVID-19, the way governments respond is crucial.
Local governments, with the help of planners, are critically positioned to deliver support to our most vulnerable communities. Therefore, it is essential that the actions of federal and state governments bolster this support.
Planners have been advocating for critical federal funding and resources, and the federal government is responding with relief for local governments. Recent federal action will have important implications for states and localities.
New COVID-19 relief legislation gives states an important role in the flow of resources to local communities and changes or suspends some planning and public engagement rules. Now, we will explore the role of state governments in enabling local governments and planners to serve their communities during a rapidly changing environment.
New State Advocacy Environment
Executive action is a significant part of states' pandemic response. Over 320 executive orders have been issued across the country, varying in scope. At least 21 legislatures have postponed their sessions and a handful of states adjourned sine die.
Despite the disruption of the usual legislative cycle, many state legislators are back in their communities and in communication with their executive branch. Here is where planners find commonality with their state legislators. Though the daily operations of both planners and state legislators have changed, both parties are on the ground grappling with how to ensure the needs of the people they serve are met.
State legislators back in their jurisdiction maintain the desire to hear from their constituents. The need for planners' expertise on issues from public engagement to transportation remains, the landscape for this advocacy has simply shifted.
As states continue to manage responses, two things will hold true. The first is that collaboration across state government leaders will be critical. Second, as these leaders collaborate, planners serve both as important advocate voices and resources for executing change on the ground.
State Responses Influence Planning Process
State responses are already proving to be influential for communities and planners.
One such example is holding public meetings in a time of social distancing. Many localities are looking for ways to continue involving the public in critical processes, while abiding by existing laws on the books. States across the country are acting to address open meeting laws that could inhibit remote or electronic participation of public meetings.
States have varying approaches that include executive action, legislative action, and engagement of state attorneys general. Perhaps the most frequently occurring are gubernatorial actions. Executive Order 2020-15 in Michigan, for example, orders temporary authorization of remote participation in public meetings. Other approaches, like Illinois, incorporate a similar authorization into the executive order that prohibits or limiting public gatherings.
Florida, Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, and Utah are among states with executive action seeking to suspend, amend or clarify open meeting laws to address remote needs of public meetings. Some legislatures are taking up the issue as well. Oklahoma (HB 3888), Ohio (HB 557), Tennessee (HB 2815), and Pennsylvania (HB 1564) are among those that have pending legislation addressing open meeting laws and virtual engagement.
It is also important to note that state attorneys general are critical in this conversation. In Wisconsin, Attorney General Josh Kaul issued guidance on open meetings during COVID-19. Kansas and New Mexico are taking similar approaches.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry provided an updated opinion following action from Gov. John Bel Edwards. Texas also offers an example of cooperation between the governor and attorney general, as Gov. Greg Abbott suspended open meeting laws per the request of Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Executive orders, legislative action, and guidance from state attorneys general on processes for holding public meetings are just a few examples of how state responses are impacting planners.
If you are interested in exploring the topic of state involvement further, check out the resources below for state-by-state responses to COVID-19 from organizations working directly with elected officials.
Top image: Washington State Senate chambers. Wikimedia Commons photo (CC BY-SA 3.0).
About the Author
Catherine Hinshaw is APA's senior state government affairs associate.