Wash. state bill would allow digital testimony at hearings

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Testifying before the Washington state Legislature could become a lot easier if a bill permitting citizens to submit video testimony goes through.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Cyrus Habib, would develop a system for citizens to record video testimony on any device and upload it to a legislative server where lawmakers could view and retrieve the testimony.

“This is a bill that addresses an issue that I have observed even in my short period in the Legislature,” the Democrat said during a Jan. 19 committee hearing on the bill. “It is incredibly difficult for all Washingtonians to come before this body and have their perspective heard.”

According to the text of the bill, the proposed legislation aims to make it simpler for the public to engage in the state Legislature.

“One of the most important opportunities to become involved in the debate over a bill is when it is the subject of a hearing before a legislative committee,” the text of the bill said. “Traveling to Olympia to testify in bad weather and during the work day may prove difficult for some members of the public. Additionally, it may be a hardship for the elderly or persons with disabilities to travel to Olympia to testify in person.”

During the hearing on the bill, Habib emphasized the importance of accessibility. Habib is blind and does not drive, so if he were not a legislator, testifying or taking part in the hearing process in the state capital would be difficult.

The virtual testimony would not be limited to audio. Citizens from across the state would also have the ability to use the server to submit written testimony and have it considered as a part of the official record.

The text of the bill calls on the Legislature to establish processes to allow the public to submit both types of testimony. The committees receiving the testimony would have the ability to set up parameters around the length of the video or written statements. The committees would also have the ability to set submission deadlines to ensure that testimony was received in a timely manner.

While the video would not necessarily be real time, Habib said having the testimony in time for a particular hearing on a bill was important so that legislators could promptly schedule future votes and hearings. And, in order to avoid spending a large chunk of time during actual hearings playing back the prerecorded video, Habib recommended that the system allow legislators to watch the testimony on their own time outside of the hearings.

“I don’t envision these actually being played in committee,” Habib said. “After this committee hearing is over, at some point later today, we’ll all be in our offices. At some point, you and I would have time to look at it. What the bill says is that the testimony should be provided in a timely fashion so we can make a decision.”

The bill calls on the Legislature to contract with a nonprofit organization that produces “gavel-to-gavel television coverage” of state government. According to Habib’s spokesman Alex Bond, only one Washington-based organization meets that criteria: TVW, a nonprofit that provides TV and news coverage of legislative proceedings.

“TVW has made it clear they’re excited to participate in this process, and they already have servers and other IT infrastructure for the legislative video they shoot, but we’d need to work out the details regarding that contract once the bill is passed,” Bond told StateScoop in an email.

In addition to TVW and Habib, Washington’s Secretary of State Kim Wyman said she also backs the bill. In testimony before the Senate’s Government Operations & State Security Committee, Wyman said her support was not an attempt by the executive branch to intrude in legislative affairs but instead an effort to increase citizen engagement. Wyman had been working with students at Washington State University on a study of citizen engagement, which inspired her support.

“One of the findings of that study was that we needed to make it easier for the constituency to engage in testimony with the Legislature,” Wyman said. “Technology is really a key way that you can do that.”

The bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote, but according to Bond it will need to be voted out of the committee by Feb. 20, or it will need to be reintroduced. At the hearing, no one testified against the bill. In addition, committee chairwoman state Sen. Pam Roach, a Republican, supported the bill.

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citizen engagement, Cyrus Habib, Innovation, Kim Wyman, Pam Roach, State & Local News, States, Video, Washington
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