Transparency Advocates Push for Streaming in Kansas Statehouse

The House and Senate are streamed live on YouTube, but committee hearings are only available through online audio recordings, which are not always audible. Advocates want to see that changed with video and audio in every committee room.

by Lara Korte, The Kansas City Star / February 21, 2019
David Kidd/Government Technology

(TNS) — For those who can’t visit the statehouse every day, keeping an eye on the Kansas Legislature isn’t easy. A number of lawmakers, including Gov. Laura Kelly, have been pushing for more transparency, but blind spots still remain.

One of the most notable is the lack of live video streams. Only the House of Representatives and the Senate are carried live via YouTube. Committee hearings, on the other hand, are available only through online audio.

Which is not always audible.

The latest attempt to bring the legislative process out of the shadows came this week with introduction of a measure to put video and audio broadcasts in every Kansas committee room, not just the two chambers.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton, the Overland Park Democrat who has introduced various versions of the bill since 2014, said this might be the time.

“Right now we’ve got a very transparency-supportive leadership. That might not always be the case,” she said. “We don’t know who our speaker is going to be or who our senate president is going to be in the future.”

Kansas government has been widely criticized for lack of disclosure, particularly around the troubled Department for Children and Families. A 2017 investigation by the Kansas City Star documented Kansas’s culture of secrecy. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave the state a flunking grade in transparency and accountability.

While proponents say it’s a critical step, others are worried about the price tag: an estimated $564,650 for video broadcast equipment. The biggest items are $182,000 for closed-captioning and $200,000 for rewiring committee rooms.

Thomas Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services (LAS), the entity that would be responsible for outfitting committee rooms for broadcast, said one of his main concerns is the cost of closed captioning, which runs around $3 per minute.

“That’s a huge amount,” Day said. “Consider the House of Representatives in session from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. when we get down to the end of the session. That will be closed captioning that entire time.”

Day suggested an alternative phase-in program that would give LAS more time to allocate the money and set up the technology. Right now, the bill has a start date of Jan. 1, 2020. Even delaying until 2021 would be helpful, he said.

Clayton said budget concerns don’t worry her.

“Often times, if someone wants to do something, they do it, and if they don’t want to do it, then they put a big fiscal note on it,” she said.

Currently, the House and Senate sessions are the only meetings broadcasted via YouTube. Over the past two years, the legislature has equipped the 13 committee rooms to stream audio.

But proponents of the bill, which include media associations and open government advocates, said audio broadcasts can be unreliable and don’t give a complete picture of legislative proceedings.

Some lawmakers even pointed out that the audio stream suddenly drops during discussion of a bill.

“Technology has advanced and become far more affordable, providing us with the capability to have a vast number of our citizens right there in the room with legislators as they debate the business of Kansas,” said Doug Anstaett of the Kansas Press Association. “To not take advantage of that technology when it would serve to keep Kansans informed would be a lost opportunity to increase transparency in government.”

It’s unclear if the bill will get a vote soon. The Federal and State Affairs committee chairman, Rep. John Barker, said he wants to further explore options to phase in transparency measures.

Clayton said she open to “any little bit” of progress.

“People are watching, they are definitely paying attention,” she said. “So I think there is no question that the citizens are watching us and they do have the desire for that transparency.”

©2019 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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