If you pay much attention to North Dakota politics, then you’ve probably seen news reports — like this one from the Forum News Service — about State Representative Marvin Nelson’s (D – District 9) intention to “shame” the North Dakota Legislature “into improving transparency in the state Capitol.” How? By livestreaming interim legislative committee meetings. According to The Forum’s John Hageman:
“[Nelson] said he’s working out technical issues but plans to livestream meetings of his interim study committees and may recruit people to record others. He said he may continue airing committee meetings online during the next regular session, which begins in 2021.”
As you can imagine, not everyone is as enthusiastic about the effort as Rep. Marvin Nelson is. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert (R – District 29), while acknowledging there appears to be no rule against Nelson’s efforts, expressed his concern that the move may “politicize” legislative meetings. With all due respect, I’m not so sure that’s a strong argument against the idea.
To be fair, meeting minutes and audio recordings are already available as matters of North Dakota’s open records laws. But is that enough? I’m not sure that it is.
You might recall that way back in March — during the 2019 Legislative Session — a group of lawmakers were caught holding a meeting about the Department of Human Services (DHS) budget. If that sounds pretty innocent, consider the fact it was being held behind a locked door. The reason? According to the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jon Nelson (R – District 14), they “didn’t want to be bothered”. So, rather than discuss amendments to the DHS budget bill in their traditional location down the hall, they took up residence where they were apparently more likely to be observed by crickets than they would reporters or the public. Nevertheless, when found, reporters were permitted to enter — after knocking — and assurances were given that the meeting was indeed open to the public and that there was nothing “devious” about the situation.
I think it’s also worth noting that the effort to “reel in” our State Auditor stemmed from a conference committee in the winding up moments of the 2019 Legislative Session. Might have things been different if a livestream of such a meeting had been available before amendments were brought to the floor and voted on?
Can the committee meetings at the State Capitol be mundane? Absolutely. There’s no question about it. Heck, I witnessed one lawmaker sleep through one myself. But that’s besides the point. Shouldn’t we foster a political environment of transparency in North Dakota? I think so. After all, not everyone can afford the time off — not to mention the expense — of driving to Bismarck to observe or participate in the political process.
Make no mistake about it, much of the hard work is done via committee meetings. This is where testimony is given, public input is heard, tough questions are asked, details are hammered out, amendments are proposed, and recommendations are voted on. And all of it before it ever gets to the floor for a vote in the House or Senate.
Among the handful of arguments against the idea, we can expect one of them to be the costs associated with making such a thing a reality across the board. According to Legislative Council Director John Bjornson, it would take about $200,000 to set up all 15 committee rooms with the equipment necessary to livestream. In addition to that, there would be ongoing fees that would need to be paid. Is that a steep price? For a legislature that seems to have no problem with a multi-million dollar cactus garden and a $50 million endowment for a presidential library, I’d say it should be doable. It’s especially doable if they’d stop spending money on things like those I just mentioned.
As you can tell, I’m having difficulty seeing major downsides to the idea. Undoubtedly, livestreaming committee meetings would make it easier for those of us who are interested in observing the happenings in Bismarck. And who knows, in addition to this, perhaps we’d hear or see less of things like committee members playing on their phones, sleeping through testimony, or not showing up without explanation.
Feel free to try and convince me otherwise, but at this point I’m thinking maybe Rep. Marvin Nelson should draft legislation for the 2021 Legislative Session that would propose making this a reality. And then dare his colleagues to vote against it.
I’m interested in your thoughts. Feel free to share in the comments.
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