We live in an age of live streaming. Everyone with a smartphone is capable of broadcasting live to a network of friends and followers on social media streams.
The capability is often used frivolously, but it has real utility to provide unfiltered access to vital information.
For those who like to keep tabs on what their local governments are doing, many city governments and school boards have broadcast their meetings live for years over local cable access television.
Unfortunately, the state capitol in Bismarck has been a laggard in providing live broadcasts of legislative proceedings.
Granted, since 2013 live streams and archival video access have been available for legislative floor debates. It’s easily accessed online, indexed by bill number. That’s helpful.
But most of the real work in the legislative process takes place in committee meetings. More often than not, by the time a bill reaches the floor, the die has been cast.
This means that citizens who are interested in legislation have been required to travel long distances, often hundreds of miles, to Bismarck if they want to observe the important work of committees shaping legislation.
North Dakota now is one of only eight states that fail to provide live webcasts of at least some legislative committee hearings, according to a tally kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Neighboring South Dakota and Minnesota both live stream legislative committee meetings.
It’s shameful — and inexcusable — that North Dakota legislators haven’t seen fit to address this. Lawmakers should be more considerate of their constituents’ right to have easy access to follow their actions.
One legislator, Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, is trying to shame his colleagues into increased webcasting access of committee hearings.
Nelson plans to live stream meetings of his two interim study committees to provide access, and he’s hoping the idea catches among his fellow lawmakers. The idea, he said, was prompted by his concern that handicapped residents find it difficult or impossible to travel to the Capitol to observe meetings.
Those who are handicapped, Nelson points out, often must rely on assistance programs that stem from legislative actions.
What have we heard from other legislators on the issue of live stream access to committee hearings? Mostly hand-wringing.
Take Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, the House majority leader. He said he worries Nelson’s efforts could politicize legislative meetings, though concedes there’s no policy against it. We should hope not; these are open meetings.
“We’ll have to see if that’s something that we’re going to have to address,” Pollert told a report. Here’s what addressing the issue should entail: Making the modest investment to equip all committee rooms with the devices to live stream meetings.
Staff at the Legislative Council estimate it would cost $200,000 to outfit all 15 committee rooms, plus unspecified ongoing fees for computer software.
That cost amounts to chicken feed. The Legislature’s current two-year budget is $15.3 million. Legislators set aside $657,760 in one-time spending projects, including $40,000 to replace digital signs, $100,000 for voting system upgrades — and $517,760 for computer and iPad replacement.
Any legislative body that can spend more than half a million dollars to buy themselves new laptops and iPads should be able to summon the political will to pay $200,000 to live stream important committee meetings.
And if that price is too much, legislators could shop around. Portable systems that can be controlled by a smartphone or tablet used by InForum and other news outlets cost about $750. That’s $11,200 for 15 committee rooms.
That’s a small price to pay to make legislative committee meetings more accessible to taxpayers. This is an easy problem to solve.