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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Allow Remote Testimony

Legislature would enhance democracy if it made it easier to comment on bills

The Columbian
Published: November 26, 2018, 6:03am

Legislators will face many difficult issues when they return to Olympia in January, but improving public access to state government is one of the easiest to fix. One method for indicating that government is willing to be responsive is to increase the use of remote testimony in the Legislative Building.

Citizens all over the state should be afforded the ability to weigh in on pertinent issues without driving to Olympia. For Vancouver residents, a trip to the Capitol is a 3 1/2 -hour round-trip journey — a big commitment for a chance to briefly address lawmakers. For Spokane residents, the excursion is 5 1/2 hours one way — and it can be complicated by icy winter roads.

The Senate in recent years has reached out to people across the state by allowing testimony through high-speed internet connections for some committee hearings. Connections have been offered in cities such as Ellensburg, Pasco, Spokane, Wenatchee and Walla Walla, providing a good start for a program that should be expanded.

According to The Yakima Herald-Republic, remote testimony was offered in 2018 for 21 hearings spanning 14 committees. Considering that hundreds of committee hearings take place on bills that effect residents in all parts of the state, the use of remote testimony remains too infrequent. And considering that the House of Representatives still has not embraced such testimony, public access remains inadequate.

In an age of technological wonders, when people can communicate in real time across continents, there is no excuse for government to remain inaccessible for the people it represents. For too long, legislative meetings have been the purview of power brokers and lobbyists, leaving regular citizens out of the loop.

As Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center explains: “Folks would be required to sign in at least 24 to 48 hours before the hearing — assuming proper five-day public notice of hearing — so remote locations would know if they should be open and staff/chairs could manage testimony. Just like those in Olympia, signing up would not be a guarantee to testify, but you’d at least be in the queue and not have to take all day off work or school to travel over mountain passes in the winter for one minute of testimony.” As with in-person testimony, allowing somebody to speak would be at the discretion of the committee chair.

Of course, open government has not been a hallmark of recent Legislatures. Lawmakers continue to argue that their schedules and emails should be free from scrutiny, despite public outcry and court rulings to the contrary. It is essential that legislators err on the side of transparency at a time when faith in our political systems is ebbing. Allowing for more remote testimony is one way to help restore confidence in that system.

With both the Senate majority and minority leaders for the 2019 session being from Eastern Washington, we hope that more attention is afforded citizens outside the bubble that is Olympia, including those in Southwest Washington. And we hope that leaders in the House also recognize the benefits of allowing remote testimony and adding more voices to legislative debates.

As Mercier of the Washington Policy Council said: “At this point the infrastructure is in place, especially at the community colleges. So they can’t claim they don’t have ability to do it — just need the will to do so.”