Wardner predicts North Dakota Legislature will eventually livestream committee meetings
BISMARCK — The top Republican in the North Dakota Senate predicted Monday, Sept. 9, the Legislature will be livestreaming meetings from all of its committee rooms within the next decade, giving members of the public a new window into policy debates at the Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said he wasn't personally opposed to airing the proceedings online because "we are moving into a different day and age." Though the Legislature livestreams its floor debates on its website, North Dakota was one of eight states that didn't have live webcasts of at least some committee hearings as of March 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
"We'll take a look at what the costs are and try to start transitioning into having recording in all of the rooms," Wardner said. "We've already kind of started it and laid some of the foundation. We'll just continue on."
The Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee, which Wardner chairs, will discuss the use of recording devices during a Sept. 26 meeting at the state Capitol.
Wardner said the discussion wasn't a direct response to Democratic state Rep. Marvin Nelson's recent plans to livestream meetings himself in an effort to pressure the Republican-controlled Legislature into improving transparency. Nelson argued lawmakers should make it easier for people who are disabled or live outside of Bismarck to keep up with the legislative process.
"We understand that times are changing and we have to change with them," Wardner said.
North Dakota Legislative Council Director John Bjornson previously said it would cost a "couple hundred thousand" dollars in one-time costs to equip all 15 committee rooms, plus ongoing fees. He said two committee rooms in the state Capitol have cameras but they no longer have the needed software and licenses to livestream meetings.
Wardner said nobody has strongly pushed for committee livestreams, making them a "lower priority" for lawmakers who have had to deal with massive swings in tax revenue in recent years. He suggested the Legislature could expand the live broadcasts over multiple two-year budget cycles.
The Legislature doesn't meet again in regular session until 2021, meaning legislative livestreams wouldn't come for at least another two years, Wardner said.
Currently, the Legislature records its committee meetings and members of the public can request the audio after the fact.
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, didn't commit to installing cameras throughout the committee rooms but said the topic was worth discussing. He also defended the Legislature's transparency and noted every bill generally receives a floor vote.
But Jack McDonald, an attorney and lobbyist for North Dakota media organizations, has argued most of the deliberations over public policy happen in committee meetings before a bill reaches the floor.
"I just think it is time," Nelson said Monday. "It's kind of become what people are expecting from their government."