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Q&A: Washington Rep. Jeff Morris Talks Drone Legislation, Community Broadband

Government Technology catches up with one of the Washington state’s technology-savviest lawmakers.

by / May 7, 2014

Washington Rep. Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon, has a long history of being technology-focused. He’s the current chair of the Washington House Technology, Energy and Economic Committee; and the former chair of the Washington House Technology, Energy and Communications Committee. He also serves on two national energy task forces on energy strategy and transmission.

In an interview with Government Technology earlier this week, Morris opined on a number of technology issues he felt would be important in the Evergreen State for years to come.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Government Technology: Where does your passion for technology and energy policy come from?

Jeff Morris: My interest in energy and renewable energy is centered on the challenge of breaking down market barriers and trying to figure out how to get those technologies to the marketplace – whether it be in the energy sector, telecommunications or … the software or hardware business.

It’s the changing nature of it that keeps me engaged and excited about it.

GT: What technology area have you’ve drafted policy on in the last few years that you feel will continue to be an issue in Washington state moving forward?

JM: Over the last two legislative sessions, the one we’ve probably spent the most hours [on] was drone legislation. Our leadership asked me to take this on between our last session and this one, to take a technology-neutral shot at protecting privacy, but allowing the developers of the technology to have the rules or guardrails of what they could deploy into the private-sector marketplace in government at the state level.

We spent a long time getting there and merged two different bills together. One I was the primary sponsor of; the other, a Republican member was the prime sponsor, and he ended up being the lead on the government portion of what we’re working on.

The governor vetoed it because of pressure from the Newspaper Publishers Association. They wanted access to the data in the conditions we were allowing [the drones] to be deployed. I don’t think that’s going to fly with the public in the end. I think the people want to have some sense of privacy as some of these technologies are deployed.

GT: One of the more controversial technology issues in state government over the last several years has been legislation designed to either limit or expand community broadband networks. What are your thoughts on it?

JM: Generally, I’ve kind of been the main person who has worked on state policy with government-owned broadband for the last 18 years. I know all the fights we’ve had over the years and so forth. I think there’s two or three really good contrasting examples in Washington state. Because we’ve been early adopters in that area, things have gone both well and poorly.

Something that’s gone poorly is that there’s a lot of [Public Utility Districts] that wanted to start offering fiber through their system because they said they were going to run fiber to all their meters to put smart meters in. This was back in 2001. And we actually let them get into the wholesale fiber business, because when we talked to all the different people in the marketplace, the conventional wisdom was dark wholesale fiber would be a huge asset particularly to rural areas.

The importance of it being dark was that once someone lights a certain number of lines in a fiber trunk, it [restricts] who can use that fiber within that trunk. So if a government or PUD lights their own fiber from cradle to grave, it really limits the amount of vendors that can come in and use that trunk to compete against each other with. We had some PUDs that put the fiber trunks in. The ones that kept it dark have had some success in getting a lot more services out to the rural communities.

There was one utility that lit their fiber and it really limited the number of folks that could come in and they’re struggling.

Municipalities have more authority than public utility districts or counties because they’re incorporated bodies. Mount Vernon, Wash., was just cited in a New York Times article about three towns that have that dark fiber, but basically because they built their own networks, they can run it up to your doorstep. It’s been a huge asset for economic development because businesses can get that unprecedented amount of speed up to their door.

GT: What technology issues will be front and center for Washington over the next few years?

JM: The three or four pressing issues coming up, most of them center on privacy and the deployment of a lot of technology that you’ve only seen in the military at the federal level. We have a pretty well worked out drone piece for both government and unregulated private-sector use that had very broad bipartisan support. I think the bill passed the House 90-7 or something like that on the vote.

The other issue coming up is I think you’re going to see activity on facial recognition software. When I was doing RFID legislation three or four years ago, the RFID people were saying, ‘We’re not going to be nearly as bad as the facial recognition people are.’ And so that’s a space I know we’re going to have interim meetings on.

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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