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Transparency chalks a victory in Boise, but more work needs to be done

Transparency chalks a victory in Boise, but more work needs to be done

Wayne Hoffman
March 16, 2018
Wayne Hoffman
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March 16, 2018

In a time when almost everyone has a camera on their cell phone, the Idaho House of Representatives has long clung to an anachronistic rule that prohibits the public from filming House members at work. But on March 8, lawmakers finally fixed that problem. They approved a rule change and now the general public can record House committee proceedings and House floor activities. This change aligns House practices with that of the Senate, which allows such recordings.

This positive change has been a long time coming.The media have always been allowed to film House and Senate proceedings. But I’ve seen non-media Idahoans told to turn off their cameras or they would be ejected from House committee meetings or from the House gallery. The new House rule lets all audience members use non-flash photography and videography so long as they don’t interrupt proceedings.

Over the course of nearly two decades, the state Legislature has come a long way as concerns the public’s digital access to lawmakers. Back in the day—before the Internet—people had to request that copies of legislation be mailed to them. In the basement of the Capitol, there was a copy center, where people could also request copies of bills. When the Legislature launched its website around 20 years ago, it was slow and rudimentary but provided, for the first time ever, access to committee agendas and legislation, which opened a seemingly opaque process to people throughout the state.

In the early 2000s, low-resolution cameras were added to the House and Senate chambers so people could see and hear their lawmakers debate bills and conduct business in real time. Officials added cameras to some committee rooms in 2010, which brought even more transparency to the lawmaking process. And, my favorite fun fact, in 2013, the Freedom Foundation got the Legislature to preserve the video recordings of the legislative floor debates. Today, you can find six years of audio and video recordings, sorted by venue and date, on the Legislature’s website.

This year, the House of Representatives also experimented with remote testimony—allowing people to speak for or against legislation from regional hearing rooms across the state. This is something IFF has worked toward for a long time, and we’re happy to see lawmakers have moved in a direction that gives a voice to people for whom it is a challenge to get to Boise.

To be sure, improvements can be made. The remote testimony experiment should be expanded to cover more bills in more committees. The Legislature could provide more advance notice of legislation being considered in committees, so people have more time to review and comment on proposals under consideration, instead of mere hours, as is often the case.

Greater transparency and more opportunities for Idahoans to participate in the legislative process is a great step forward. However, lawmakers also need to open up the process for themselves. How? They should not give so much power to their colleagues who happen to hold the “chairman” title. There needs to be stronger demands made for hearings on popular bills that advance liberty. During the current session I include in this category, legislation that would have: established education savings accounts, protected people from unlawful detention under the National Defense Authorization Act, and allowed people to buy CBD oil legally without fear of government reprisal. Lawmakers need to understand that a committee chairman only has as much power as afforded by the committee’s members.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, deserves kudos for his efforts that helped allow all Idahoans, not just journalists, to record elected representatives doing the public's work. And, congratulations are in order to the other lawmakers who persist in opening the Legislature to increased public engagement. Let's keep the full-court pressure on to improve the process so Idahoans know their ideas are heard in the halls of power.

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