North Dakota Democratic lawmaker aims to livestream committee meetings to 'shame' Legislature into increased transparency
BISMARCK — A North Dakota lawmaker said he plans to livestream legislative committee meetings in an effort to "shame" the Legislature into improving transparency in the state Capitol.
Democratic Rep. Marvin Nelson, his party's candidate for governor in 2016, said he's working out technical issues but plans to livestream meetings of his interim study committees and may recruit people to record others. He said he may continue airing committee meetings online during the next regular session, which begins in 2021.
Nelson said the idea was sparked by his bill proposing a legislative study of disabled people's access to the state Capitol.
"We have handicapped people around the state who literally cannot attend a legislative meeting," Nelson said Monday, Aug. 26. "Government has a great deal of importance to them because they tend to rely on assistance from programs or laws that improve accessibility."
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, worried Nelson's efforts may politicize legislative meetings but said there doesn't appear to be a policy against it.
"We'll have to see if that's something that we're going to have to address," said Pollert, who chairs a committee that oversees the Legislature's work between regular sessions.
The North Dakota Legislature has aired and archived its floor debates on its website since 2013, and Nelson said that transparency should be extended to other rooms in the Capitol. He said his people in far-flung districts are interested in what happens in committee meetings but are faced with an hourslong drive to Bismarck.
"During the legislative session, the real decisions and the real arguments are made in the committee rooms," said Jack McDonald, an attorney and lobbyist for North Dakota media organizations. "It's pretty much cut and dried once it gets to the floor most of the time."
The North Dakota Legislature records its committee meetings and members of the public can request the audio after the fact, but the lack of live webcasts has prompted some members of the public to pull out their mobile phones to record high-profile hearings.
As of March 2018, North Dakota was one of eight states that didn't have live webcasts of at least some committee hearings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Both Minnesota and South Dakota legislatures livestream committee meetings.
North Dakota Legislative Council Director John Bjornson said two committee rooms in the state Capitol have cameras but they no longer have the needed software and licenses to livestream meetings. He said it would cost a "couple hundred thousand" dollars in one-time costs to equip all 15 committee rooms, plus ongoing fees.
The Legislature has livestreamed committee meetings on a "very limited number of occasions," Bjornson said.
Pollert didn't have an immediate opinion on introducing cameras into committee rooms, but he touted the benefits of face-to-face interactions between legislators and members of the public.
Levi Andrist, president of the North Dakota Lobbyists Association, said people who have business in front of a committee but live in another state may find it convenient to watch online, but others could be worried that those discussions will become less "conversational or informal, which has really been the kind of the history or culture of the legislative process."
"I don't get the sense there's a lot of strong feelings one way or another from lobbyists' perspective," he said.
Nelson said he doesn't hear much outright opposition to legislative livestreams, but he thinks some may worry that the recordings be used for "gotcha" moments. He argued increased transparency could benefit lawmakers and their constituents.
"I see a divide between the people and the Legislature," Nelson said. "Fundamentally, the Legislature is feeding that by not getting what's actually going on out there."