By Travis Perry │ Kansas Watchdog
OSAWATOMIE, Kan. — When it comes to live video of some of Kansas’ most important legislative committees, inaction by Sunflower State lawmakers has resulted in a double-whammy for state residents unable to physically attend key meetings.
For one, lawmakers have let the existing technology atrophy to a point where using it is more trouble than it’s worth.
Making things worse, they never turn the camera on in the first place.
Under the Capitol dome in Topeka, the Old Supreme Court room serves as a focal point for such legislative committees as Agriculture and Natural Resources, Federal and State Affairs, and the Senate’s Judiciary committee. For at least a decade, this room has also been wired to stream live video online through KSLegislature.org, but you can count on one hand the number of times the camera was actually activated during last year’s legislative session.
The matter was illustrated in painfully ironic detail Wednesday during a meeting of the Joint Telecommunications Study committee, where under the inactive gaze of a lens officials debated matters pertaining to rural telephone service. Yet, because the camera was left off, almost all of those affected by their decisions never had the opportunity to watch the proceedings unfold without being physically present.
Rachel Whitten, spokesperson for House Speaker Ray Merrick, said the legislative leader has no plans to require that meetings which can be streamed online actually are streamed online.
“It’s at the discretion of the committee chair,” Whitten said.
According to one committee chairperson, that answer is almost always going to be “no.”
Before Kansas Watchdog reached out on the matter last March, Rep. Sharon Schwartz, R-Washington, said she wasn’t even aware that online video streaming was an option for daily use. Since looking into the issue, Schwartz said the technology is so ancient that it almost isn’t worth turning on.
“At this point in time, the tech is old,” Schwartz said. “(Legislative IT Services) would have to come up and babysit every committee every day.”
“It’s there, but not, so you know for me to request and ask for it, I assume that would mean this coming budget year they’d have to allocate more money for someone to come in there,” she added.
Senate President Susan Wagle didn’t return calls for comment from Kansas Watchdog.
Until the technology is updated to improve usability, Schwartz said the camera is likely to stay off, save for special occasions.
“It should certainly be a priority, but we have a lot of priorities today and not enough money to do everything we want to do,” Schwartz said.
For the record, Schwartz said she couldn’t fathom any reason why public meetings shouldn’t be broadcast online; for the moment it’s a matter of feasibility.
Merrick commissioned a cost study last spring to gauge the feasibility of implementing streaming video after Kansas Watchdog first brought the issue to light. Though initially I was told it would take a relatively short time to complete, seven months later the study is still in progress. Whitten said legislative IT staff has been tasked with other duties which has delayed the study’s release.
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