Remote testimony is needed for the Colorado Legislature
By Diane Schwenke
“Why do we not have people from the Western Slope testifying on bills during the session? What do we need to do?”
That was the start of a conversation earlier this fall with a handful of members of the Colorado House, including Rep. Ray Scott of Grand Junction, who were conducting a “listening tour” of the state.
I’m sure there are well over 500 people in the community who could have and would have answered that question. These are people who have tried to get to Denver and testify on key pieces of legislation, but more often than not, they fell victim to the whims of weather or late calendar changes at the Capitol.
With many residents outside of Metro Denver now more than ever feeling disenfranchised, it is past time for the state Legislature to move forward with allowing remote committee testimony on bills.
Since 1996, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce has conducted video conferences throughout the session with the valley’s state delegation, but only because our representatives were willing to leave the Capitol building and drive to sites in the metro area that had two-way communication capacity.
In recent years, citizens could log in from their desktops and listen to what was being said in committee hearings and on the floor, but that has been a one-way flow of information.
The chamber set out recently to see how other states have tackled the issue of citizen access in the state lawmaking process.
In Alaska, where the capital of Juneau is set apart geographically from much of the state’s population, testimony is almost always done remotely.
Carson City, Nev., is hundreds of miles from the state’s major population center, Las Vegas. So, the Nevada Legislature therefore allows citizens in Las Vegas and across the state the chance to participate via teleconference.
But they were not the first. In fact, as of 1999, the following state bodies had already allowed testimony to be given by constituents via some form of teleconferencing, video or interactive Internet usage: Kentucky Senate, Minnesota House, Montana Senate and House, Nevada Senate and Assembly, North Dakota Senate and House, Ohio House, South Carolina Senate, Virginia Senate and Wisconsin Senate.
Many, like Wisconsin and Kentucky, expanded this option to the entire legislature after experimenting with one house or the other.
More recently the states of Washington, Hawaii and Wyoming have added this method of engaging their populations in providing testimony.
Wyoming recently designated one committee room at the state Capitol with audio-visual capabilities and used the state system that was already in place via the university to allow for testimony to be given from other areas in the state.
It has mainly been used to hold hearings on wolf management and for Senate confirmations of appointees who live a long way from the capital.
This has been so successful that, according to the I.T. department at the Wyoming state Capitol, they are looking at a model for 2014 that would utilize a Google Hangout virtual location to host committee meetings and allow for testimony to be given by Wyoming constituents. The state of Wyoming does not have to change the state Constitution to allow for videoconferencing.
Colorado is ranked the third most tech-savvy state in the union, yet it does not offer the opportunity for remote testimony to its residents, although there have been past efforts to address this issue.
In 2008, then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff asked the Capitol’s technology staff to look into what it would cost to set up a videoconferencing system. The estimate was approximately $100,000 for the equipment and more for the implementation. Romanoff’s term ended in 2008, and the subject has not come up since.
Technology has come a long way in five years, and yet the distance between the state lawmaking process and rural voters has never seemed longer.
With that in mind, the chamber has made it a top priority to see the option for remote testimony instituted in Colorado in 2014. We’ve had conversations with House Minority Leader Del Grosso, who, we understand, has pulled a bill title, and we’ve repeatedly called the governor’s office to ask for his support, as well.
This is not a partisan issue. This is a fairness issue. We should all be allowed reasonable access to participate in the state legislative process and the technology exists to provide that.
What can you do?
Join us in making our voices heard from the Western Slope, the San Luis Valley, the Eastern Plains and elsewhere in Colorado.
Let the chamber of commerce know if you and/or your organization want to sign a letter requesting that we pass the legislation, enact the rules and install the technology that will let us participate more fully in the governance of this great state.
Diane Schwenke is president and CEO of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.