The Legislature begins its 2020 session Monday, and while the lawmakers will spend most of the next two months some 300 miles away, there are ways a person with a particular concern, issue or pet peeve can keep tabs on them without making the trip across the state, over a snowy pass and through metropolitan Puget Sound traffic.
You can use some of the same tricks reporters employ to keep track of the people and issues that flow through the Capitol like the water through the Spokane Falls during the spring melt.
The first trick is that you don’t have to always be in the room to see what’s happening, and sometimes even to offer opinion. Committee hearings and floor debates are televised on TVW, which is one of the public access stations on cable television, usually close to the channels for C-SPAN and local government meetings.
You can even “telecommute” to some committee hearings, because some of the panels take remote testimony from Spokane and other cities. Several Senate committees pioneered remote testimony years ago. This year, the House has caught up with three of its committees – College and Workforce Development; Housing, Community Development and Veterans; and Local Government – agreeing to take remote testimony on at least some bills from Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Ellensburg and Bellingham.
How do you know what bills the committees are hearing? Go to leg.wa.gov, the legislative homepage, which will show you that day’s scheduled hearings. Or click on the Agendas, Schedules and Calendars option on the left column and pick the Committee Meetings Agendas option at the top of the page.
Or you can save yourself a few clicks – and possibly clog up your inbox – by clicking on the Email Updates button on the lower right and filling out the form.
The list of meetings should match up with the schedule of hearings on the TVW website. With practice, you can watch one hearing or floor debate on the television and another hearing or debate on the website.
The second trick is that even if you can’t watch something as it’s happening – with two chambers in the Legislature and as many as nine committee hearings scheduled at the same time, that’s a real possibility – you can catch it later. TVW records all the committee meetings and all floor debate, and archives them at tvw.org. Click on the Menu option in the upper left corner.
The third trick is to use some of the resources the state has set up with your money to track what’s going on. Leg.wa.gov has a good Bill Information search engine for following a bill’s progress. If you know the bill number, you can enter it on the main page. If you don’t know the number – and by the end of the session there might be more than 4,000 bills, so who can keep all of them straight? – you can search by a keyword or phrase.
Don’t search for something very general like “budget” or “schools” because it will give you hundreds of options. Be as specific as possible, and if you know the last name of the sponsor, include that in the search.
Another good state website to bookmark or list as a favorite, depending on your web browser, is fiscal.wa.gov, which has links to budget proposals and tracks how money is spent.
The fourth trick is to keep track of what people are watching and writing about. The Spokesman-Review files legislative stories on its WA Government page, and they can be found there even after they’ve cycled out of the home page. Other newspapers also post legislative stories on their websites. I’m not going to give them a free plug, but the legislative caucuses collect online versions of stories from newspapers, websites, radio and television stations around the state, and provide a long list of links most weekdays.
Among the news blogs, Crosscut.com has beefed up its staff to provide more legislative coverage this year and may be the best of the West Side sites for keeping track of Olympia, although The Seattle Weekly and The Stranger’s Slog will have some coverage.
All four caucuses produce megabytes of news releases for their individual members that can be found by starting at leg.wa.gov, clicking on Senate or House, then choosing the Democratic Caucus or Republican Caucus link. For a balanced view on a controversial topic, you’ll want to check all sides.
The caucus websites even have audio and video options. “Wow! That’s pretty slick,” you might say. “Wonder who pays for that.” We all do as part of the legislative budget. There are roughly four times as many communications specialists between the two chambers working for legislators as there are reporters covering the Legislature.
You can also find information from legislators, caucus staff, reporters, other elected officials, lobbyists and just about anyone with an opinion about what’s going on at the Capitol on Twitter by searching for #WaLeg. Your district’s lawmakers probably have Facebook and Twitter accounts, and you can follow or friend them if you want their thoughts.
The final trick is to expand your list of resources beyond the state websites and social media posts. Washington Votes, which is operated by the Washington Policy Center, has a good search engine for tracking which bills legislators introduce and support.
Washington State Wire covers state government with a pro-business slant. For an opposing view, there’s The Stand, the state Labor Council’s blog, which throws in some legislative news and commentary in its mix.
One last suggestion if none of those seems to get you the information on a particular bill or issue: Call or email your legislator’s office. You can look them up on leg.wa.gov, and even if you don’t know their names or even the number of your legislative district, it has a way to look that up by clicking on the “Find Your District” button on the left side of the page.