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Thu., May 8, 2014

Editorial: Give citizens opportunity to be heard in Olympia

With the state Capitol on the west side of the Cascade Range, it’s always been a challenge for Eastern Washington citizens to stay engaged in the legislative process. Technology has long been available that would make remote testimony possible.

Legislators just needed the will to make it happen.

Finally, they seem to be coming around to the idea, according to a recent survey conducted by Washington State University. Lawmakers were asked: “Should video-conferencing be used to allow for constituents to provide remote testimony?” A supermajority of 72 percent of them said yes.

Legislative staffers were asked for ways technology could be used to improve the legislative process. Allowing remote testimony was among the most common answers.

Even lobbyists, whom you might think would be happy about hogging the microphones, overwhelmingly agreed that off-site testimony is a good idea. Maybe they’d like to stay home more often, because it can be a daunting journey.

A Spokane motorist who wants to testify on a bill can make the 320-mile trek to Olympia in about five hours; if the weather and traffic cooperate. But, of course, Snoqualmie Pass is often closed due to heavy snow, and traffic is a reliable mess on the West Side.

If the hearing is in the morning, the concerned Spokane citizen would have to get a hotel room the night before. If the hearing is rescheduled, it’s a multinight stay. There’s always flying, but that’s a pricey mode of travel for three minutes in front of a legislative microphone.

On the same day – Feb. 18 – the Legislature was shooting down an important No Child Left Behind measure, and passing the REAL Hope Act, which allows college-bound undocumented immigrants to apply for state need grants, snow closed Snoqualmie Pass for seven hours. Citizens who wanted to do some last-minute lobbying on those significant bills were out of luck.

There are a lot of reasons for Eastern Washington citizens not to bother with the legislative process, and the Legislature hasn’t cared enough to provide encouragement.

The Washington Policy Center has been pushing for remote testimony, and open government groups are on board. With computer programs like Skype, citizens could stay in their hometowns and testify. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than not having their voices heard.

Nevada and Alaska are prime examples of states that have made video testimony work.

Seventy percent of Nevada residents live in Las Vegas. The capital, Carson City, is 440 miles away. To bring residents of the state’s largest city into the process, rooms were wired in Las Vegas so they could speak to legislators. Nevada’s been doing this for more than 20 years.

Alaska has so many remote communities that testimony from afar is a must. Alaskans can weigh in from 23 legislative information offices scattered around the state.

When surveyed, Washington lawmakers overwhelming said remote testimony would improve the process. Now, they need to write a bill and schedule a hearing. Let’s just hope the passes are clear.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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