As a lawmaker works to broadcast legislative committee meetings at the state Capitol in Bismarck, another lawmaker worries that doing so may politicize the meetings.
Politicize a meeting between elected state lawmakers doing the state’s business? Oh, Heaven forbid.
Whatever the political repercussions, the concept is a good one, and it comes from state Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla. Nelson wants to livestream legislative meetings – those usually quiet gatherings attended by few but at which many decisions are made. According to a report from Forum News Service and published in the Herald, Nelson’s intent is to “shame” the Legislature into improving transparency. Nelson said the idea came from his own bill regarding disabled people’s access to the Capitol.
Here is the issue: Anyone who wants to see discussions and debates on the floor of the Legislature can do so by tuning in live to a state website. It’s been that way since 2013, and rightfully so. However, the committee meetings are not broadcast, and therefore North Dakotans don’t get to see what happens in these important side rooms. That is, unless they attend the meetings.
Open government? Yes.
Well, kind of.
It can be a long drive to the Capitol, and going there to simply sit through a committee meeting isn’t realistic for many who have jobs, disabilities or perhaps cannot afford to. Or, maybe some people are like us: We have the time, we have the means and we have the interest, but we just don’t believe we should have to needlessly interrupt an entire day to see what our elected lawmakers are doing on our behalf.
And don’t be fooled into thinking the meetings are boring, uneventful precursors to a floor debate.
“The real decisions and the real arguments are made in committee rooms,” North Dakota Newspaper Association lawyer Jack McDonald told Forum News Service. “It’s pretty much cut and dried once it gets to the floor most of the time.”
North Dakota is one of just eight states that do not have live broadcasts of at least some committee hearings. Neighboring Minnesota and South Dakota already do it.
So, it all seems quite obvious that livestreaming committee meetings is the appropriate and transparent thing to do, right? What lawmaker would object to this?
House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, told FNS that Nelson’s idea may politicize legislative meetings, but also noted there doesn’t appear to be a policy against it.
“We’ll see if that’s something we’re going to have to address,” he said. He also touted the benefits of face-to-face interactions between lawmakers and the public, which of course is great but avoids the real issue – transparency for all public business.
Inevitably, doubters will introduce concerns about cost. Apparently, purchasing enough cameras to broadcast in all meeting rooms will cost approximately $200,000.
Considering the overall state budget, that seems entirely affordable.
Buy the darn cameras. Open a window that for many has been closed for too long.