The Washington state Senate is taking small steps toward creative use of communication technology that may increase citizen access to the legislative process. In an experiment, the chamber began letting the public offer testimony by video conferencing from remote locations in Eastern Washington during the past legislative session.
For people who live in Spokane, Cheney or Pullman, the drive to Olympia can be brutal in winter — and then it could only be for a three-minute appearance before a legislative committee.
So it makes sense to experiment with technology to try increasing access to the Legislature for residents of far-away cities who sometimes feel distant and disconnected from their state government.
The good news is that when a new legislative session begins in January, all five hearing and meeting rooms in the Senate’s John A. Cherberg office building will be able to handle two-way conferencing via Skype. That’s an upgrade from just one room this past year. The less-good news is that only one room can use this technology at a time.
Republicans who control the Senate are behind the experiments in remote location testimony — specifically Sens. Sharon Brown of Kennewick and Mike Padden of Spokane Valley. They and Senate Democrats, who also supported the idea, deserve credit for pushing it forward.
Padden said his constituents have to drive five hours, cross Snoqualmie Pass and often spend the night on the west side if they want to testify.
So far, the experiment is on a small enough scale to avoid much cost, and it is going slowly enough to let everyone see what pitfalls might arise. So far, only six off-campus locations are being used.
All testimony has been given at sites belonging to the state’s K-20 education network, which includes colleges and other educational facilities in Spokane, Pasco, Wenatchee, Kennewick and Yakima.
Six Senate committees tried using remote video conferencing on 19 occasions during the past session. This drew just 44 people to testify.
Though cost has been minimal, Paul Campos, deputy secretary of the Senate, said an investment is needed to make the technology in Cherberg usable in multiple hearing rooms at the same time.
Apparently the massive, multimillion-dollar renovation of Cherberg several years ago left the hearing rooms, and data cables, without upgrades. Campos declined to say how much the next step in upgrading equipment might cost in 2016.
It’s unclear how well a hot-button issue like gun rights or gun control, or even a debate over budget cuts vs. new taxes, could be managed with unlimited access to hearings for all state voters.
The House has taken a slower approach to allowing remote testimony. But on other things — such as electronic voting on the House floor — the House is light years ahead of the Senate. House members push buttons on their desks; the Senate prefers to mark votes down on paper one senator at a time as each member’s name is called out.
There’s efficiency, and then there’s the Senate.
To the Senate’s credit, it went to an electronic sign-up system for those wanting to testify at hearings.
The House waited to gauge whether this would just give lobbyists another inside track. It turned out not to be the case. “We watched the Senate for few years. Now we’re doing it this year,” House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker said.
So progress, when it comes to legislatures, is slow and never sure. But the direction is good on this change.
Editor’s note: This column has been updated.