The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

March 5, 2012

Online sessions move state toward more transparent government

By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — West Virginians won’t have to be at the Capitol this week to keep tabs on the Legislature as the 2012 regular session heads toward its midnight Saturday climax.

Anyone with Internet access can listen live to floor sessions as well as committee meetings for both the Senate and House of Delegates. Even some smartphones can link to this streaming audio.

Robert Phipps, a professional technologist at West Virginia University, said he’ll check the online audio if a bill or issue comes up that he’s interested in.

“If I can catch it, I will listen to the committee hearings or the floor fight if there is one,” said Phipps.

The 40-year-old said he has several friends who do the same. The House first went online in 2010. The Senate followed last year. Phipps said he tuned in to the debates that marked the opening days and weeks of the Senate’s 2011 session. With then-Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin acting as governor, senators sought a stand-in leader. The Senate ended up adopting rules that allowed for an acting president, but not without lengthy debate and lingering opposition by several members.

Phipps said that with only so many column inches in a newspaper and floor speeches reduced to sound bites, the audio fleshes out these proceedings.

“The Legislature comes out looking better,” Phipps said. “It gives you a better idea of what’s going on.”

He’s also a big fan of the Legislature’s extensive website.

It hosts the audio while offering an array of other features including committee schedules, a listing of legislation up for votes and the text, roll calls and chronology of actions on bills. Lawmakers in both chambers have begun discussing expanding the site further to offer video access.

House Majority Leader Brent Boggs said that delegates have begun looking at available technology, and how that technology’s been changing, as they consider ways to wire the House Chamber and committee rooms for video. The Braxton County Democrat also said this process may take some time, but that constituents have reacted with enthusiasm to the audio access in the meantime. Schools also appear to be tapping the online streaming for government and other classes, he said.

“I’ve heard so many positive comments, and not a single negative comment,” Boggs said.

All state legislatures now broadcast floor proceedings either online or on TV, according to a 2011 review by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Around half the states offer online video only from both their lower and upper chambers. A dozen or so legislatures provide both video and audio. Only Rhode Island lacked webcasting, but has its own TV department, according to NCSL’s review.

West Virginia is among 11 or so states solely with audio access. But it also streams committee meetings, and the 15 states that do not include neighboring Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, the NCSL review found.

States have also begun archiving their legislative webcasts. More than 30 do so for their floor proceedings, and nearly half archive committee hearings. West Virginia has yet to add these features. Technical problems also remain an issue. The microphones in House Education, for instance, hang from ceiling and the resulting audio can be hard to hear online. The wireless podium microphone in Senate Judiciary is at least occasionally dead for want of fresh batteries.

The advent of online legislative proceedings also doesn’t render the process completely transparent. After Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety proposal cleared its final House committee hurdle, it idled in that chamber for a week. When it resurfaced, it was accompanied by an amendment that removed one of its provisions and changed several others. Delegates explained that the changes reflected agreements reached among lawmakers, administration officials, industry and labor. But the meetings that yielded this agreement were not public.

Yet, the streaming audio also provides ample evidence of the time legislators spend discussing, debating, amending and voting on bills. The Legislature has also come a long way since the 1960s, when committee meetings were closed to the public.

“We had our sources, or we talked to the chair, or mainly we talked to the limited staff to learn what happened in there,” recounted Karl Lilly, the former newsman and retired veteran of the Senate clerk’s office.

Gradually, the Senate and House opened its committee proceedings. Lilly recalled a reaction to that transition to public meetings that also arose with the debut of online audio streaming.

“There was a concern that the members would play to the media,” Lilly said. “But that never really happened, not to any extent.”

The arrival of technology that allowed regular visits by TV crews to committee meetings provided a similar parallel, Lilly said.

“After a while what happened was, they would get busy and forget about (the cameras),” he said.

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Online:

West Virginia Legislature Webcasts: http://www.legis.state.wv.us/live.cfm

Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina