Wyoming's Capitol Renovation Includes Tech Upgrade, Transparency

The historic landmark will be retrofitted with wiring and other infrastructure that would allow video coverage of legislative sessions, expanded streaming from committee rooms and an overall increase in government transparency.

by Trevor Brown, McClatchy News Service / April 18, 2014

The planned renovation of the Capitol building in Cheyenne, Wyo., could make state government more transparent and accessible to the public.

Lawmakers began preliminary discussions Wednesday to explore what types of technological changes they want to see once the historic landmark is retrofitted.

These options include installing wiring and other infrastructure that would allow electronic voting, gavel-to-gavel video coverage of legislative sessions and expanded audio or video streaming from committee rooms.

Tom Whetstone is a consultant on the project with HDR Architecture. He said some of these choices might have been too complicated or cost prohibitive for the Legislature to consider previously.

But since the renovation will overhaul much of the building's audio and visual capabilities anyway, lawmakers can use this as an opportunity to design the building to meet current or future needs, he said.

"This is part of the conversation about the Capitol that is very exciting," Whetstone said during Wednesday's joint meeting with the Legislature's Select Committee on Legislative Technology and Process and its Select Committee on Legislative Facilities.

"You are going to have a new building and a new way of working and engaging with the public that you haven't had before. Your building needs to enable that."

Lawmakers passed a bill this past session that commits $259 million over the next several years on what is being called the "Capitol Square Project."

That includes a major renovation of the State Capitol, a renovation and expansion of the adjacent Herschler Building and a widening of the underground connector between the two buildings.

One of the tentative plans is to create several new committee rooms.

In addition to providing more space for the public to attend meetings during legislative sessions, the new rooms also could be equipped to record and archive audio and video of the meetings.

Legislative staff in recent years has begun streaming and recording audio, which is posted online, from the Senate and House chambers and the Joint Appropriations Committee's second-floor meeting room.

But the smaller committee rooms, used by lawmakers during sessions, do not provide audio or visual capabilities.

Rep. Rosie Berger, R-Big Horn, said expanding recordings or streaming audio to these rooms would be beneficial to those who can't attend.

"That is where the public doesn't have the same access as we provide on the House or Senate floor," she said. "I know what we did (in streaming audio in the Appropriations Committee's room) has made a huge difference for our constituencies and also for our legislative members who have the ability to learn along with us as we receive testimony from agencies and work through the budget."

Another option is equipping the Senate and House chambers to allow legislators to cast their votes electronically and have their votes displayed on a digital screen.

Lawmakers currently cast their votes verbally. Roll call votes are then tallied and recorded by the chief clerk of the chamber and entered into their computer system.

In most cases, those votes are posted on the Internet within minutes.

Wendy Madsen with the Legislative Service Office said these recorded votes can take close to a minute and half to two minutes for each vote.

That time can add up, considering that each chamber votes multiple times on each of the hundreds of bills and amendment they consider.

Marguerite Herman, a lobbyist with the League of Women Voters, said electronic voting could be a tool that would make the process more "fluid."

She said this could make it easier for legislators to change their rules to allow for more roll calls instead of having voice votes that are not recorded.

But Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said electronic voting doesn't necessarily mean their voting records will be more transparent.

He said depending on how it is implemented, it actually can slow the process and make it more confusing for the public.

Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said these are important questions to consider. But he added that the final decisions on electronic voting or other technological issues don't necessarily have to be made now.

Instead, he said lawmakers can be proactive by making sure the infrastructure for these options is put in place during the renovation so they will have the ability to consider them in future.

"I'm not sure whether we are ready to decide if we want to have electronic voting or whatever else," Ross said. "But what we can do is make sure we have the sufficient wiring and guts in there so we won't have to rip out walls again."

Whetstone added that many of the final decisions on the project -- ranging from how office space will be used to how the buildings will be furnished -- still need to be made.

He said the consultants are trying to get input from policymakers and present them with options.

A special oversight group made up of the governor and legislative leadership will then begin making many of decisions affecting the projects in the months ahead.

What's next?

The Capitol Building Restoration Oversight Group and several legislative committees will meet during the coming months to guide some decisions affecting the renovation. State officials hope to begin major construction on the State Capitol following the 2015 legislative session.

Visit Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)