State leaders should be fast-tracking streaming-video capability at the Statehouse, not trailing other states on high-tech transparency. The more open the Legislature is to public view, the better.
Most states have C-SPAN-style video feeds of their legislatures, often in partnership with public broadcasting channels. Kansas offers only live streaming audio of proceedings on the House and Senate floors, with no opportunity for Kansans to listen to archived debates at their convenience.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, took a good step earlier this month in asking the Legislature’s computer staff for an update on the cost of making streaming video of committee hearings available online. As it is, streaming video can be done only from one hearing room, the Old Supreme Courtroom. A 2008 estimate on enabling other committee rooms for streaming video put the price at “up to $6,000 per room, plus $30,000 to $35,000 for a control room,” Rachel Whitten, Merrick’s spokeswoman, told the Topeka Capital-Journal.
The Legislature’s chief information technology officer recently told the website Kansas Watchdog that every room in the Capitol actually is wired for streaming media now, and what’s lacking are the cameras and infrastructure to manage online traffic.
Merrick said in a statement to the Capital-Journal: “Openness is an extremely important part of the legislative process, and I believe streaming video and audio from committees would be a great service to our constituents. However, even if all the rooms were wired, it would remain the decision of the committee chair whether or not to stream hearings.”
But why? The Legislature needs an across-the-board commitment to letting the public see it work. It also should be standard practice, as called for by law, to allow cameras and recording devices at most meetings. Yet onlookers and reporters in some committee hearings sometimes are told to stop recording audio and video or taking photographs.
On some contentious issues, maybe there is reason to fear cameras could be intrusive and distracting. More likely, lawmakers fear they could end up embarrassing themselves on YouTube or other social media and getting grief from constituents. And as former state Rep. Brenda Landwehr of Wichita told Kansas Watchdog, “if you’re saying things you don’t want people to (see) or hear, then you probably shouldn’t be saying them.”
Lawmakers have fallen short on other open-government matters, too, recently shelving a commonsense bill – at the urging of the city of Wichita and other locals – meant to prevent governmental agencies from charging exorbitant fees to fulfill requests under the Kansas Open Records Act.
The Legislature must lead the state on open government, by legislation and by example. And if the 12-year, $332 million Capitol renovation doesn’t end up providing Kansans greater electronic access to their Legislature, that will be a lost opportunity – and a shame shared by multiple governors and legislative leaders.