By Jason Mercier
A recent legislative survey by Washington State University indicates that lawmakers may be ready to embrace Washington Policy Center’s recommendation for the Legislature to grant citizens the opportunity to provide remote testimony. According to the results of WSU’s survey, 72 percent of lawmakers and lobbyists answered “yes” to the question: “The use of video conference technology as a way for committees to receive public testimony is being proposed. Should video conferencing be used to allow for constituents to provide remote testimony?”
Allowing the public to give lawmakers remote testimony at fixed locations around the state would give citizens another opportunity to be part of the lawmaking process. It would also help Washingtonians overcome anything Mother Nature may throw our way during the winter months the Legislature is in session, especially with the snowy Cascade Mountains sometimes cutting the state in half.
Even when there aren’t snow-related issues in the Cascade Mountains, getting to Olympia to provide testimony can sometimes require a full day of travel for many Washingtonians. Consider the following drives under the best case traffic conditions:
Walla Walla to Olympia — 312 miles (5 hours, 20 minutes)
Spokane to Olympia — 320 miles (5 hours)
Kennewick to Olympia — 265 miles (4 hours, 20 minutes)
Bellingham to Olympia — 149 miles (2 hours, 40 minutes )
Vancouver to Olympia — 106 miles (1 hour, 45 minutes)
Everett to Olympia — 89 miles (1 hour, 30 minutes)
This is where remote testimony can help close the distance and provide all Washingtonians the chance to be part of the legislative process.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, several states already provide remote testimony options for citizens. In fact, lawmakers in Colorado just approved remote testimony for their citizens. Other examples include Nevada and Alaska.
Nevada’s capitol of Carson City is hundreds of miles away from the state’s main population center — Las Vegas. The Nevada Legislature therefore allows citizens in Vegas and across the state the chance to participate via teleconference.
Not only does this technology allow citizens from across Nevada to be connected with their lawmakers but it also has the capability to bring in expert testimony from across the country and the world to help inform the legislative debate.
In Alaska, where the capitol is geographically set apart from much of the state’s main population area, citizens almost always testify via remote location.
If the Legislature truly wishes to hear from the people of the state of Washington, it needs to give those citizens the opportunity to be a part of the process while enacting meaningful transparency reforms.
Although there is broad support for allowing remote testimony, there is concern that it would be disruptive to the current hearing process. To avoid disruptions different rules could be in place for those wishing to provide remote testimony.
For discussion purposes, a remote signup sheet could be used with citizens placed in a queue managed by committee staff. Sign-up for remote testimony could be required the day before the hearing (assuming proper notice of the meeting was given) so a chairperson would know the universe and location of potential remote testimony before the hearing starts.
Testimony could then be taken first for those in Olympia with time reserved for those participating remotely. The Committee Chairperson could determine how much remote testimony to take per bill. As is the case with those attending in person, being in the remote testimony queue would not be a guarantee of being able to testify — time dependent.
Based on the 72 percent support expressed in the WSU legislative survey for remote testimony, we may be a step closer to seeing this become a reality.
Jason Mercier is the Government Reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization with offices in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org