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Senate chairman’s mistake highlights legislative transparency problem

Senate chairman’s mistake highlights legislative transparency problem

Dustin Hurst
January 27, 2015
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January 27, 2015

A Senate chairman’s mistake highlights a legislative loophole that gives committee leaders the power to obscure some information from the public.

During the Jan. 21 hearing of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, the panel's live audio stream used to broadcast meetings to the public was shut off for an unknown reason. The committee's chairman, Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, told IdahoReporter.com that was a mistake.

“Everything we do is open to the public,” Heider said.

Heider explained he only learned of the lack of streaming when a former north Idaho lawmaker sent him a message about it during the meeting. The panel resumed the streaming midway through the hearing, the chairman said.

While Heider pointed out the committee handled only rules, or adjustments to state agency procedures, during the Jan. 21 meeting, the panel did authorize an increase to the amounts Idahoans pay for birth and death certificates, upping the cost by a collective $345,000 annually.

Since 2013, the Idaho Legislature has archived those committee and chamber streams to provide better access, openness and transparency to residents, many of whom cannot attend hearings due to distance.

The Legislative Council, a 14-member panel of Idaho lawmakers that manages operational matters for the Capitol, initially approved the streaming and archiving during the 2013 legislative session. State lawmakers passed the measure with nearly unanimous support.

The panel, though, wrote two loopholes into the measure, which became Joint Rule 21: First, the measure governed specifically only streams from the House and Senate chambers, not committee rooms. Second, the rule gave the bodies the power to turn off the streams and the archiving.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, led the charge on that with support from Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.

Bedke didn’t want to discuss the rule Tuesday. “Go talk to Bart Davis,” Bedke told IdahoReporter.com. “I was just parroting what he said.”
Davis said he sought the power for panel leaders to accommodate for testimony that might be overly sensitive or graphic in nature. The majority leader said he trusts the committee chairs to wisely decide when to turn off the stream.

“Use your good judgement,” Davis said. “That’s why you’re chairmen.”

Jeff Tucker, manager of Idaho Public Television, which facilitates the Capitol’s audio and video capabilities, pointed out that House and Senate journals, along with committee minutes, serve as the official records of business -- not audio or video recordings.

There may be some confusion on the issue, though. House Education Committee Chair Reed DeMordaunt, R-Star, was not aware he wields the power to cut off live streams. Accordingly, he said he’s never turned off his panel’s live stream.

House Transportation and Defense Committee Chair Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, was also unaware of the power to cut live streams.

Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation, which publishes IdahoReporter.com, worked with lawmakers to provide for the streaming and archiving capabilities as a matter of good governance.

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