OLYMPIA – Keeping tabs on the Legislature, which sometimes features dueling floor sessions or dawn-to-dusk committee hearings, can be challenging in the state capital and even more so for Spokane residents, some 300 miles away.
But the Internet and other technology makes it easier than a generation ago, both for reporters in Olympia and for readers at home. Here are a few tricks of the trade the capital press corps uses:
Catch it live. Even from Spokane it is possible to watch most floor debates and some committee meetings live, either on the cable television feed for TVW (Channel 25 on Comcast in Spokane) or, if your Internet connection is reasonably fast, on its website, tvw.org. TVW has a daily schedule on the website both for television and for webcasts.
Some days the legislative agenda is pretty light, so you’ll see canned reports on the state’s lighthouses or courthouses, recent press conferences or Supreme Court arguments. Other days, one chamber may be debating a hot topic while the other chamber has a full slate of committee hearings. Floor action usually trumps committee hearings for the television feed, but floor action can have long pauses when the chamber breaks for a caucus meeting. TVW will switch over to a hearing, then switch back. When both houses are involved in floor action, the one that’s not on television is being carried on the website.
The website usually shows several committee hearings live when the meeting schedule is full.
Catch it later. While most people have seen TVW broadcasts from flipping through the cable channels, not as many are familiar with the website’s archive system. It saves floor sessions by date and hearings for nearly every House and Senate committee. The hearings are arranged by day and committee, and list the bills discussed. It’s possible to search for hearings or action on a bill by its number. Recordings of the hearings usually show up on the site a few hours after they conclude.
Use the state resources; you help pay for them. The Legislature’s website, leg.wa.gov, offers a wealth of information beyond phone numbers and addresses for legislators.
The bill information link on the left side of the page is among the most useful for tracking legislation. If you know the bill number, enter it into the search window. You’ll get the legislative history, including vote counts, and links to the original bill and its iterations.
If you don’t know the number, click on “search the full text of a bill,” which will take you to an advanced search and allow you to find bills or statutes on a topic. Check “All Bills, Memorials and Resolutions” for the broadest search for session activity.
To find out how much money is being spent where, use the sites maintained by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program at leap.leg.wa.gov. It shows the current budgets for state operations, capital projects and transportation, as well as past budgets since 1979. When new budgets are proposed, they go on the LEAP site.
Budget breakdowns also show up on fiscal.wa.gov, which is good for comparing spending for current things like public schools or government operations or natural resources with what each chamber proposed and passed. It allows users to search for state employee salaries by name or department, and has a new feature that maps spending on transportation and capital construction projects by county and legislative district. A word of warning: The map works pretty well, but the report function for generating a list of projects in each county is extremely slow.
Use other websites. The caucuses in each chamber have their own blogs that tout the wonderful things their members are doing, with news releases and video clips. House Republicans call theirs the Capitol Buzz, House Democrats have the Advance, Senate Democrats have the Hopper and Senate Republicans have Washington SRC. All can be found from the main legislative site. There’s some fluff, and for a balanced view on a controversial topic you’ll want to check all sides.
The Spokesman-Review will collect stories and columns about this year’s session on spokesman.com with a 2014 Washington Legislature tag line.
The washingtonstatewire.com covers state news in the Capitol, and its sister blog, Washington Cannabis Wire, focuses on marijuana.
Washingtonvotes.org has a good search engine for tracking what bills legislators introduce and support. It plans to launch a news service to cover “important legislative action in Olympia.”
Many legislators and their staffs also use social media, as do most reporters. You can follow most legislators on Facebook or on Twitter or look for #waleg, the hashtag that usually accompanies news tweets before, during and after the session.