House Backtracks On Prohibiting Committee Video, But Removes Funding For The Project

In was one step forward and two steps back in the House today on the issue of transparency.

Last week the House approved a version of the legislature’s budget which specifically prohibited the creation of an online video streaming/archiving system for legislative committee hearings. The state has – brand new to this session – an excellent video system allowing citizens to watch floor sessions of the legislature in real time, as well as go back and watch past sessions.

The legislature’s budget contained a provision to allow the creation of a video system for committee hearings as well – where the real policy sausage gets made – but the House removed authorization.

Today, though, came a bit of good news. The House and Senate conference committees restored the language authorizing the project. The bad news? Well, they also removed the funding for it. Here’s Rep. Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) questioning Rep. Blair Thoreson (R-Fargo) about the change (view the full video here):

Rep. Blair Thoreson (who is just the bill carrier, he’s made it clear he supports the creation and funding of this system) explained that the legislature’s budget does include a $500,000 pool for renovations to the committee chambers that could be used for the video system. But that’s cold comfort for those interested in transparency.

Without a specific appropriation, the chances of the public having access to live video and library of past hearings is almost non-existent.

Sadly, Republicans have made it pretty clear they don’t want cameras in the room:

Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the biggest concern many committee members had was that live cameras would stifle the committee work.

“They could be detrimental to the committee,” he said. “People tend to hold back when they know they are being recorded.”

He said while the committee put the provision in the bill, Legislative Management still could opt to put cameras in each room. The provision merely says right now that the committee doesn’t agree with the provision that was passed in 2011.

The Legislature gave itself $1.3 million for legislative wing equipment and improvements during the 2011-13 session. It proposes to put $500,000 toward equipment and improvements during the upcoming biennium.

Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, said she doesn’t see the point of adding cameras, thinking most won’t follow the daily committee work.

“What we’re saying and doing in committee is not the basis of legislative intent,” she said, adding that cameras are not needed because the Legislature already is one of the most transparent in the country and anyone can easily take part in the process and speak to a legislator.

“You can’t get any more open than this,” she said, pointing around the House chamber.

“We get run over all the time, we can’t even walk down the hallway without getting stopped,” added Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who sits in front of Grande and is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

The committee hearings are open to the public. If you happen to be in the capitol when they’re going on, you’re free to sit in and even participate if they’re soliciting public input. So if they’re already open to the public, why not open them to people aren’t in Bismarck at the capitol?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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