Transparency, civic engagement, logistics considerations as Legislature goes virtual

Transparency, civic engagement, logistics considerations as Legislature goes virtual
For the first time ever, Washington’s upcoming legislative session will be held virtually, with implications for government transparency, citizen engagement and the mechanics of lawmaking. Photo: Mike Richards

For the first time in history, Washington’s legislative session will convene remotely via virtual meetings, with the potential to significantly affect not only how government operates but also how the public can engage – for better and for worse.

While email, smartphones, and social media have all changed the way legislators engage with each other and their constituents, the planned move to remote operations represents a serious shift away from in-person interaction.

For some transparency advocates, one benefit to the approach will be greater embrace of remote testimony that may allow people from around the state to speak during committee public comment periods. The state created a pilot program for the concept that allowed people to testify remotely – but only at specific places where cameras were set up.

Washington Coalition for Open Government President Toby Nixon is a former state legislator and currently sits on the Kirkland City Council. He told Lens that while lawmakers in the past have allowed subject experts to give presentations via Skype or Zoom during committee meetings, “for ordinary people they still had to go to a physical location where there was a camera set up. If (the) legislature enables remote testimony (in 2021), a lot of people could participate who normally would not be able to spend half the day going to Olympia.”

Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier has also been a long-time advocate of remote testimony. He told Lens that “the genie is out of the bottle. Remote testimony should be here to stay. As far as the mechanics of how session works, though…that’s entirely up to the discipline of the lawmakers.”

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-2) says he and others are concerned about so many people trying to testify that some voices are heard but not others – all at the discretion of the committee chair. “Do you have genuine public access? If everyone can get on, does that mean nobody really gets heard? One of the jobs of the minority is to shine a light when it’s not being done fairly.”

One thing that won’t change is TVW’s gravel-to-gavel coverage. President & CEO Renee Radcliff Sinclair told Lens that “we cover every hearing happening on the campus, and we intend to do that during the legislative session.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak in March, TVW has had time to make the various technical adjustments needed to provide such coverage, including increasing bandwidth to handle large viewership of Governor Jay Inslee’s press conferences, as well as continued coverage of Zoom-hosted legislative committees and State Supreme Court hearings.

“We’ve gotten pretty good at managing those kinds of things,” Radcliff Sinclair said.

From the technical side, TVW’s coverage will be done through a scan converter rather than cameras. The livestream “comes to our studio as if it were an event happening live on the campus,” she said, and to avoid technical problems during the session, TVW has hired on additional staff.

“Technology fails and humans fail, but I think we’ve got a pretty good failsafe,” she said. “If there’s a glitch or anything happens to interrupt the flow of information, we’re prepared to resolve that right away.”

A virtual legislative session also means lawmakers will have to navigate an entirely different environment where private conversations with lobbyists or colleagues in the hallways outside committee rooms or in the chamber wings will now have to take place in some other way – or not at all.

“It’ll take longer than what it takes if you’re able to just pull somebody into the wings of the chambers and have a quick conversation,” Nixon said. “If you want to have a side conversation with a committee chair, how are you going to do that if you’re each in your home? I can see where there will be some adaptions with normal working methods, but I think it can be accomplished. It’s just a question of whether they’re going to have the right tools.”

Wilcox also believes a virtual session will take longer. Because of that, he believes the session should be narrowly focused on adopting the 2021-23 operating budget.

“The technology is surprisingly good,” he said. “We’re all learning to use it. (But) it creates a lot of inefficiencies.”

For Republicans, the protracted session means more opportunity to stop unwanted legislation from moving forward or to propose bill amendments to generate debate. It’s an aspect of legislating Wilcox said is vital to preserve when lawmakers meet remotely.

“The amendment process is the heart of the responsible opposition and debate,” he said. “Limitations on debate and amendments are the things that would be most concerning. This is just the heart of what legislating is all about.”

While the minority party can’t bring bills to the floor for a vote, they can propose amendments to those bills. That provides opportunity not only for the minority to speak but also allows majority party members to vote in dissent on portions of a bill they support overall.

At the same time, Wilcox said there’s been no talk or signals from the Democrat majority to change the traditional amendment process.

From a technical side, Nixon said the session will also depend on whether state lawmakers have sufficient internet. “You might have situations where some of the legislators at their residences don’t have high speed service because they live way out in the boonies.”

“It’s going to be new, and mark my words: it’s going to be chaotic,” Radcliff Sinclair said. “For the first half of session I’ll bet it’s going to be wild, but we’re prepared to manage whatever they give us.”

Another potential outcome of a virtual session on the transparency front will be the amount of lawmaker online communication previously done in person that would be subject to public records requests. Yet, Mercier says the virtual dynamic can make it easier for shenanigans such as title-only bills and waiving five-day requirements for bill passage.

“The worst kept secret is that a bill truly becomes a law behind closed doors and one-on-one meetings,” Mercier said. “If that process continued as normal now without the ability for the media, watchdogs, citizens groups, trade groups, lobbyists, unions to know what is coming up and alert the public…citizens won’t stand a chance.”

Nixon said “if they take this as an opportunity to talk to more people…do online chats with their constituents, then I think it can be a positive thing. But if legislators take this as an opportunity to kind of hide from people, that would be a mistake.”

Though things like remote testimony may become permanent features of future sessions, Radcliff Sinclair believes the virtual aspect won’t. “This business is all about relationship, and I think we’ll miss each other. I see some of the things that we’ve been forced to accept hanging around a little bit, but I think ultimately the legislature will come back to Olympia.”

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