Transparency check-in: streaming at the Statehouse
To encourage more transparency in state government, SCPC has been examining how frequently legislative committee meetings are livestreamed to the public. These committees have the important job of reviewing and approving bills before they reach the House and Senate floor, and committee members will often propose changes in the process. We contend that streaming during this stage is critical for public engagement, particularly as news coverage of state and local government is seeing a general decline.
Earlier this year, we looked specifically at how often House and Senate budget committee meetings were being streamed. We found that streaming became more frequent after we began tracking and publishing the results, though it dropped off later in the session.
2021-2022’s most transparent committees
Based on records obtained from legislative staff, we looked at streaming percentages for every standing committee and their subcommittees during the 2021-22 (124th) legislative session. Committees that don’t primarily deal with bills, such as the House and Senate Legislative Oversight Committees, were excluded from this ranking.
|Committee||Chairman (during 124th session)||Percentage of meetings streamed|
|House Agriculture, Natural Resources, and lEnvironmental Affairs||Rep. David Hiott||100%|
|House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal lAffairs||Rep. Leon Howard||100%|
|Senate Judiciary||Sen. Luke Rankin||99%|
|House Education and Public Works||Rep. Merita “Rita” Allison||94%|
|House Ways and Means||Rep. Murrell Smith||93%|
Each of these committees showed an impressive dedication to streaming over the last two years. Two committees had perfect records, while the other three only missed a handful of streams.
In particular, the House Ways and Means Committee stands out because it held significantly more meetings than most of its peers. On top of its normal committee duties, Ways and Means is responsible for writing the first draft of the state budget.
Outside of the top five performers, however, streaming amounts vary and begin to decline. It should be noted that decisions about whether to stream a meeting are generally left to committee and subcommittee chairmen. Of course, there are times when necessary equipment or staff are not available, but committee leaders should be recognized as an important factor in Statehouse transparency.
Why is streaming important?
Transparency is key for any healthy government to function. When entire sections of the legislative process go unseen, such as a series of committee meetings, it becomes difficult for citizens to stay informed and hold lawmakers accountable for their actions.
That’s why streaming, in particular, is a great device for public engagement. Meetings can now be viewed in real time from anywhere with an internet connection. Public testimony, which once required in-person attendance, can now be delivered remotely. Livestreams even help with preservation, since video files are normally posted online for later viewing.
Conversely, when a meeting isn’t streamed, it means there is no official record of what was said at the time. State law does require that minutes be kept for public meetings, though the policy doesn’t cover things like member remarks or public comments. Minutes also lack the convenience of video, as minutes for legislative meetings must be requested from staff.
While it’s promising that some committees have a strong record on transparency, there is still work to be done. These top performers must keep up the good work in 2023, setting an example for their committee colleagues to follow. Those outside of the top five must make streaming their meetings a top priority next year. The eventual goal is for all committee meetings in the House and Senate to be streamed.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have pushed school boards to stream their meetings nearly passed into law this year. While streaming at the Statehouse is important, it’s a good sign that lawmakers are looking to improve transparency in other areas of government. This policy should be revisited in the 2023 legislative session.
As for the Statehouse, one solution is to include funding for streaming equipment in every legislative meeting room in next year’s budget, or simply pay for it with currently available funds. Compared to other government expenses, the cost for such a project would be minimal, since most rooms already have cameras. Once the technology is in place, it’s up to lawmakers, particularly committee leaders, to make streaming a priority.