Politics & Government

State lawmakers might expand their social network

Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature negotiate the state budget behind closed doors, but the public has full access to their interaction on Twitter.

There, the parties keep up a relentless drumbeat of self-promotion and bickering, adding graphics when 140 characters can’t fully capture the other side’s wrongheadedness.

There’s the bounced check to show the House hasn’t held votes on proposed taxes to fund its budget, and the elephant in a hammock with a cold drink to highlight three-day weekends taken by the Senate.

“@WashingtonSRC supports huge hikes in gas & prop taxes — why not ask richest 1/10th of 1% to pay their fair share w/ cap gains tax?” Senate Democrats posted Wednesday, the same day Senate Republicans tweeted: “$3Billion in added revenue is not enough for @WAHouseDems who want $1.5Billion tax hike — largest in state history.”

There’s a Twitter account for each legislative caucus, plus a YouTube channel and, in the House, a Facebook page. It’s all run by caucus communication staffs, state employees whose workload also includes website posts, email press releases, constituent conference calls and news-media inquiries.

Now the Legislature’s points of online contact with the public could multiply. One version of a social-media policy under consideration in the Senate would allow a staff-run account on each social network for each of the 49 senators who wants one.

The secretary of the Senate would decide which social networks would be allowed, but the proposal gives Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as examples.

Sen. Joe Fain proposed the individual accounts, saying social networks are increasingly how the public finds information.

Fain, a 34-year-old Auburn Republican and Senate floor leader, has made use of the Senate’s existing social-media presence with short videos talking about often complicated issues of policy and budget.

“Low-cost ways of communicating with the public are things the Senate should embrace,” Fain said. “The Internet’s not going anywhere and social media’s a big part of it.”

Some senators joke that maybe in three or four years they will be allowed to have Myspace pages, Fain says, referring to the network that Facebook long ago surpassed in popularity.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson said she is wary of increasing demands on staff. She questioned whether Fain’s plan would require more employees to monitor all the accounts.

The caucuses’ communication staff includes at least 15 employees in the Senate and at least 18 in the 98-member House.

If each senator is allowed a Facebook page, said Nelson, D-Maury Island, it should be nothing more than an automatic feed from the senator’s traditional website.

Fain wants more ability to customize, and he said the new ways of communicating wouldn’t add to staff burdens. Instead, senators would have to choose from among various ways of reaching constituents, he said, with some preferring newsletters or conference calls and others using social media.

Under today’s rules, Nelson said her caucus’ staff is careful to stay within ethical lines when using Twitter posts to point out differences with Republicans. She said Web pages and newsletters from individual senators also have been used appropriately but add to the power of incumbency.

“As we’re looking at expanding that into all these new social media,” Nelson said, “my concern is we need to be very careful about how we’re using state resources and taxpayer dollars, to make sure it’s not just self-promotion, which then goes over the top into essentially facilitating our campaign work.”

Fain said the proposed social media accounts would be subject to the same kind of ethical guidelines as existing communications.

Senators on the Facilities and Operations committee will decide on Fain’s proposal.