By Mannix Porterfield
No one had to drag the Senate kicking and screaming into the 21st Century this time.
Time was, the Senate always lagged the House of Delegates when new technology arrived, even resisting the use of laptop computers on the desks of senators.
Not any more.
Considered the more conservative chamber, traditionally reluctant to change, the Senate is now a step ahead in the technological arena with the recent addition of huge video screens in the chamber’s only two committee rooms — finance and judiciary.
Assistant Clerk Lee Cassis says the closed circuit presentation system was designed to accommodate both the public, state agencies and senators seated around the horseshoe in the committee rooms.
Before the new wrinkle was added, lawmakers and others had to fumble through reams of paperwork in an often futile effort to keep up with the speakers.
“Last year, we rolled out the iPads in the chamber and did away with the big bill books,” Cassis said.
“Now, the members have the ability to have all those bills at the touch of a finger. This year, we’re going to incorporate iPads at the committee level and this is going to help us do that. When the agencies come to do budget presentations in finance, and come out with all these graphs and charts, we’ll have a good visual. We never had this ability. They would bring in these thick books to give to each member.”
As each point is being made, all will be able to follow along the 70-inch screens, double sided so that lawmakers and those in the audience see everything simultaneously.
“For the members, they will have that presentation on their iPad so they can freely go through it and see what’s important to them in their districts,” Cassis said.
Cassis has been with the Senate clerk’s office six years now, after working fully a decade in the office of Legislative Auditor Aaron Allred.
For each committee room, the cost to add the screens was about $12,000, and Cassis says that includes the televisions, many high-tech add-ons, and the labor costs.
Installation wasn’t simple, however, especially in the judiciary room. There, Cassis explained, crews encountered 14-inch solid slabs and, once they began to drill, discovered gaps in between the concrete and had to go all the way into Allred’s offices and peel back the carpet.
“Overall, it worked out really nice,” the assistant clerk said.
Another advantage is that a private citizen can deliver a presentation and use the screens to present corroborative data to support an issue. A presenter can use a 19-inch monitor as he talks, avoiding the need to turn around and see what’s on the big screens, but instead rivet attention on the senators.
“The idea is to keep everything centrally focused,” Cassis said. “We’re just scratching the surface with it, but for now, we’re using it for bill presentation and such.
“Eventually, say we’re in the middle of a session, and need an expert witness, and when we don’t have much time, say for a witness in California, we have the capability of bringing them in by video, put them up on that screen and they’ll be able to see the person.”
So far, live streaming of such video presentations isn’t possible, but that isn’t being ruled out.
“We’ve always been way behind,” Cassis said of the Senate.
“When it comes to the chamber, we like to keep it as traditional as possible. For people who don’t know the process, the bulk of the process goes on in the committee rooms. We’re hoping to outfit those with as much technology as we can. That way, members can have everything at their fingertips.”
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