By Kevin Frazzini
It makes sense that Colorado and Washington would be among the handful of states leading the way on remote public testimony—that is, allowing legislative committees to hear testimony submitted via videoconferencing tools from people who are not physically present at the capitol.
The distances separating many constituents from their capitals in these Western states are great, and the often winding two-lane roads can take drivers over one or more mountain passes.
If a resident of Cortez, in Colorado’s southwest corner, for example, wants to testify at the Capitol in Denver, he or she is looking at a roughly seven-hour drive. That’s if weather and traffic cooperate.
(Washington Senate staffers Susan Howson and Bruce Hendrickson talked about Washington's remote testimony program.)
Considering that the General Assembly is in session from January to May—the snowiest time of the year—it could take a lot longer than that, easily turning a trip to provide a few minutes’ testimony into a multi-day adventure.
Likewise, driving from Spokane, Wash., to the Capitol in Olympia takes about five hours—unless there’s severe weather on Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90.
Increasingly, states are considering remote testimony as a way to help people get involved in the legislative process. In their 2015 legislative sessions, Colorado and Washington both set aside funding for pilot programs directing staff to scout and build relationships with potential remote locations, to provide or upgrade videoconferencing equipment, establish procedures for taking testimony at remote sites, to get word about the service out to the public and to track results.
In Colorado, funding allowed for 500 hours of remote testimony, with each caucus being allocated 125 hours. Requests to allow remote testimony had to be approved by legislative leadership, and bills had to be designated for remote testimony at least three days in advance.
The state required remote witnesses to register on the General Assembly’s website, and at least one witness had to be registered 24 hours before a scheduled hearing or the remote site would not be opened. Walk-ins were allowed if the remote site was open. Both states created websites that integrated with their bill-management databases.
So how did the programs work? Washington facilitated 19 videoconferences during the session, with 44 people signing up to testify remotely on a total of 24 bills. The state had six remote sites set up in three cities statewide, and dedicated 170 staff hours to the effort. Colorado had a total of 11 hearings at one site for 55 total witnesses, using about 25 total staff hours.
During a presentation at this year’s Legislative Summit in Seattle, representatives of both states said their pilot programs were successful. Challenges remain, among them increasing the number of remote sites and ensuring people know the remote service is available. Both states put information on their websites and relied on local newspapers to run announcements.
Although formal profiles of people using the remote service weren’t available, a staffer from Washington reported an anecdotal sense that people who had been invited to testify would have come to the Capitol regardless. They took advantage of the remote service because it eliminated the need to travel. “Not a lot of average citizens signed up to testify,” he said.
Kevin Frazzini is assistant editor of State Legislatures magazine.