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Spin Control: Keeping up with the Legislature from afar

January 13, 2019

The Legislature is meeting 300 miles away from Spokane, but it may be easier than ever to keep tabs on what lawmakers are doing for – or to – you, at least for one aspect of the often hard-to-follow process.

The Senate has expanded locations in the Spokane area for people to offer remote testimony in some committee hearings through “videoconferencing technology,” a fancy term for connecting you to a session in the shadow of the Capitol dome through a camera, the internet and a projector in the hearing room.

Think Skype, but with a better camera than the one looking out from the top rim of your monitor frame.

The Senate will add two remote sites, one at Spokane Valley City Hall and the other on the Eastern Washington University Cheney campus, to its established 16 remote sites throughout the state. Four of those are in the Spokane area: Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College, on the Washington State University Spokane campus and the Northeastern Washington Educational Service District office. Another is at the Spokane Community College facility in Newport.

Remote testimony is still a pilot project, and not every Senate committee session will have it. Nor will all the remote sites be connected for a hearing.

But senators sponsoring a bill with high local interest often push for a hookup when it comes up for a hearing. The locations and times for remote hearings will be listed on the web, and The Spokesman-Review will try to list times and locations for those in the Spokane area.

Here are some other ways to keep up with the Legislature:

The Spokesman-Review will again feature coverage from its full-time Olympia bureau, which has an added reporter for the session. On many days, coverage from Olympia and Boise will be featured on a special Our Capitols page, collected under the Washington Government and Idaho Government headings and searchable on spokesman.com using a 2019 Washington Legislature tag.

TVW offers video coverage of all House and Senate committee hearings and floor debates. Its cable channel – Channel 25 on Comcast in Spokane – will select a hearing to broadcast live when lawmakers aren’t on the floor. On many days, there can be as many as nine committees holding hearings at the same time, and all are live-streamed on the website tvw.org.

If you don’t catch it live, you can find a hearing by a particular committee or floor debate archived on another section of the TVW website, where things are arranged by day and the committee or chamber, and list at least some of the bills discussed. Video of a hearing usually shows up on the site a few hours after it concludes and a new transcription system makes the videos easier to search.

Don’t be afraid to use state resources. After all, you pay for them, so get your money’s worth. The Legislature’s website, leg.wa.gov, offers a wealth of information beyond phone numbers and addresses for lawmakers. The home page has a link on the left side for the bill information page, which is great for tracking legislation. If you know the bill number, enter it into the search window. You’ll get the legislative history, including vote counts, and links to the original bill and its changes.

If you don’t know the number, click on “search the full text of a bill,” which goes to an advanced search engine that allows you to find bills or statutes by topic for this and several past sessions. Check the box for “All Bills, Memorials and Resolutions” for the broadest search of session activity.

To get daily and weekly lists of hearings, click on “Sign Up for Updates” from the Legislature’s home page. The lists also show which sessions are expected to be broadcast live.

To find out how much money is being spent and where it goes, use the site maintained by the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program at leap.leg.wa.gov. It shows the current budgets for state operations, capital projects and transportation, as well as budgets since 1979. When new budgets are proposed, they go on the LEAP site.

The caucuses in each chamber have their own blogs that tout the wonderful things their members are doing, with news releases and video clips. Each can be reached from the Senate or House link on the main legislative page; then go to the caucus of your choice.

There’s a fair amount of fluff, and for a balanced view on a controversial topic you’ll want to check all sides.

You can find running commentary from lawmakers, the caucus staffs, the press corps and other elected officials or their staffs on what’s happening in and around the Legislature on Twitter by searching #WaLeg. If you want to know what lawmakers in your district are doing, check to see if they have Twitter or Facebook accounts – most do, even if some have staff handle the updates – and follow or “friend” them.

All this could keep you on top of the Legislature for the next 105 days – or longer if they need a special session – and protect you from the warning of Gideon Tucker, a New York judge who opined in 1866: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe when the Legislature is in session.”

While some people might argue that things have improved significantly in the last century and a half, do you really want to take the chance?

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