It's time — Washington needs to give the public 21st-century access to lawmaking

Apr 11, 2013

Legislators should follow Washington Policy Center, other state examples on how to use technology to bring Olympia to citizens

Jason Mercier, 306-705-9068/
Chris Cargill, 509-570-2384/

SEATTLE – If open government and transparency are priorities for Washington state, lawmakers need to move into the 21st century when debating and passing legislation. Today, Washington Policy Center calls on the legislature to take advantage of technology and allow citizens across the state to testify at hearings via remote connections.

This week, Washington Policy Center wrapped up its third year of legislative Wake-Up Call forums throughout Eastern Washington. The forums — attended by more than 1,000 people and dozens of lawmakers since their start in 2011 — connect legislators via videoconference to public meetings in Spokane, Tri-Cities, Yakima, Moses Lake and Wenatchee. Lawmakers are able to take advantage of technology to come face to face — or screen to screen — with their constituents.

“For many citizens, this is their only opportunity to tell a legislator how they feel about a specific policy,” explained WPC Eastern Washington director Chris Cargill. “A cross-state journey of 10 or more hours round trip just doesn’t make sense for people who would otherwise testify on important policy issues.”

Last week, WPC Government Reform director Jason Mercier was asked to testify via telephone to Nevada’s legislature on a proposal to create performance audit authority.

“Nevada has been using teleconference technology as standard operating procedure since the 1990s for its legislature because the vast majority of the population lives 400 miles from the state capitol,” explained Mercier. “As a result, all hearings are teleconferenced  to Las Vegas and people can show up there to testify on a live video feed.”

Over the past week, Washington lawmakers have held hearings on bills that were introduced just hours beforehand. For example, both the House and the Senate held public hearings on budgets that totaled hundreds of pages just hours after the details were made available. Few people, other than lobbyists, from outside the  Puget Sound area had the chance to read the entire bills and travel to Olympia to testify.

Allowing the public to give lawmakers remote testimony at fixed locations around the state is not a partisan issue. It is a fairness issue. It would give citizens another opportunity to be part of the lawmaking process. And it has bipartisan support.

Speaking at a lunch sponsored by the Secretary of State’s Office focused on the legislative process, Democratic state Sen. Karen Fraser explained, “I feel so sorry for people who drive all the way [from Eastern Washington] and talk for two minutes — that’s all they have. I think it would be nice if we could find ways where people could testify from distant points in the state.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, several states already provide remote testimony options for citizens.

“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,” said WPC president Dann Mead Smith. “Through our experience providing the service for legislators at public meetings, Washington Policy Center stands ready and willing to help state leaders accomplish this goal.”

Additional Resources

Sen. Karen Fraser (D) on need to use technology to bring more citizen input
Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D) on Eastern Washingtonians not able to make trip to offer input
Rep. Hans Zeiger (R) on need for true discussion before taking action on bill
Jason Mercier’s Nevada Performance Audit phone testimony (starts at 1:59:48)
Presentation: How Nevada’s teleconferencing system works
Nevada legislature’s bill authorizing the teleconferencing process
Washington Policy Center’s Legislative Wake-Up Call forums
Coalition calls on lawmakers to adopt legislative transparency reforms

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