When the first territorial legislature met in Olympia in 1854, lawmakers arrived by horseback, canoe or small boat. Many even came by foot, walking long trails through the woods.
The geography of our state has always posed a challenge for both elected officials and the public who need access to state government. Not surprisingly, much of the debate that first session focused on the construction of roads.
Today the logistics have improved to the extent that up-to-date information about the Legislature is easily accessible online. However, one thing has remained the same in Olympia: most testimony on bills up for consideration comes from residents of the Puget Sound region.
As a senator from Spokane, I can quickly and reliably get home on weekends, a luxury those early senators could not even envision. But geographical distance combined with busy lives still limit the opportunity for most Washingtonians to make their voices heard in the hearing rooms at the Capitol. So even today, we should work to ease access further.
We are considering several solutions, and technology offers one path forward.
Over the last decade, the Legislature has experimented with remote testimony, connecting constituents with lawmakers through limited applications of video conferencing software. Washington is one of only a handful of states that has even attempted to test such a system.
Hawaii and Alaska, with even greater physical barriers to overcome, have devoted considerable time and resources to enabling remote testimony.
Spokane currently has three sites where people can testify remotely: Spokane Falls Community, Spokane Community College and WSU Spokane. SCC’s Newport campus is also a participating site.
This week, the Senate took another significant step to make it more practical for people to request to testify remotely. This year the program will evolve from the existing pilot program to a permanent program, with more opportunity for Eastern Washington residents to testify. All Senate committees will be looking to accommodate more remote testimony requests, and in at least one committee – the Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee – people will be able to sign up and provide remote testimony on every bill.
We chose this committee for several reasons: most of the sites we use for remote testimony are conveniently located at colleges and universities, and these institutions serve as community centers for new ideas, innovation and cultural understanding – not just for the students and faculty but for the entire community.
Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-Maltby), who chairs the committee, has worked hard with our dedicated staff to facilitate the sharing of testimony as seamlessly as possible. We have a lot of work yet to do, but I’m pleased we are making progress.
In 2018, remote testimony was used in 21 hearings. There are now 15 available sites throughout the state offering remote connections. People have testified remotely from cities such as Ellensburg, Pasco, Spokane, Wenatchee and Walla Walla.
In the past few years, our state has taken dramatic steps to increase access to the ballot box through same-day registration, automatic registration, the Voting Rights Act, and greater campaign transparency. This effort will focus on increasing access to the public’s work once the elections are over and done – during the legislative process.
I hope the Senate’s commitment to this smart approach is just the beginning.
We should never stop searching for ways to increase access and strengthen trust between the public and those who represent them. The people of Washington deserve nothing less.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) represents the 3rd Legislative District.
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