Videotestifying Is An Idea Whose Time Isn’t Coming

By David Accomazzo, STATE BILL COLORADO

DENVER — On a recent Thursday morning, Kit Carson School District Superintendant Gerald Keefe packed up his car and prepared himself for a three-hour commute to Denver.

He had two pieces of business to attend to. He had an appearance in front of the state Board of Education. He also wanted to testify against Sen. Chris Romer’s SB09-131, a bill requiring 250 minutes of physical activity a week for elementary-school students. Keefe felt the bill threatened Colorado’s constitutional provision of local control of school curricula.

The six-hour roundtrip is a hassle, but he says it beats the alternative, which is submitting written testimony.

“Sometimes, you have to have your face in the room,” Keefe said. “It’s important we were there because if we weren’t, they might have passed something much worse.”

As technology improves and provides people with more ways to communicate across great distances, most state legislatures, including Colorado, are sticking with old-fashioned, face-to-face or written communication. That’s despite the hassles it causes for those living outside the capital and the abundance of technologies offering simple solutions to bridge the gap between legislators and their rural constituents.

Idea explored, but abandoned

Videoconferencing and teleconferencing from remote locations to lawmakers in Denver would save people like Keefe loads of time and money. But hearing testimony from offsite poses legal, administrative and financial obstacles for our cash-strapped state.

Last year, then-Speaker Andrew Romanoff asked the capitol’s technology staff to look into what it would cost to set up a videoconferencing system. Systems Analyst Zack Wimberly, who had previously worked with videoconferencing technology in the state’s higher education system, drew up a rough report for the speaker. Estimates put the cost of video teleconferencing at more than $100,000. And that’s just for the equipment. There are problems with the building’s technology infrastructure that would drive the cost up.

“The existing network structure could not support” videoconferencing, Wimberly said.

There is also the problem of archiving the witness testimony. The state would have to figure out how to record the audio or the video of the witnesses giving remote testimony. Storing audio is cheap, but storing high-definition video of witness testimony is expensive and requires lots of storage space, forcing the state to pay for data storage space somewhere, Wimberly said.

Since term limits forced Romanoff’s departure at the end of 2008, no other legislator or state official has called about videoconferencing, Wimberly said. And with the state’s current budgetary crisis, no one is likely to. Yet, as Wimberly pointed out, many state agencies — community colleges and school districts, for example — already have videoconferencing systems in place, and some of the places he has talked to are open to including the state legislature in their network.

“The more people you have on the system, the more useful this would be,” Wimberly said. “Some people I’ve talked to are very amenable to doing this.”

Other states embrace it

Yet some other states have begun to offer citizens ways to participate in public hearings from outside the capital building. Alaska and Nevada offer residents the ability to testify on hearings from outside their capitols.

In 1972, Alaska began establishing Legislative Information Offices that give constituents easy access to the legislative process inside the capitol at Juneau, said Jake Carpenter, a Web/audio specialist with the Legislative Affairs Agency.

Today, Alaska maintains 22 such offices across the state. They provide teleconferencing capabilities as well as other legislative information services. Eleven of Alaska’s LIOs operate only during the legislative session while the other 11 operate year-round.

“The primary rule is that everybody gets their piece,” Carpenter said.

While only three offices are set up for video conferencing, the state has begun a project to expand video teleconferencing to every LIO, Carpenter said.

Nevada’s legislature allows testimony to occur from either within the Capitol in Carson City or from a state building in Las Vegas equipped with teleconferencing technology. “It allows literally thousands more citizens to express their opinion during legislative hearings without having to incur the expense of traveling to Carson City,” said Barbara Prudic, a research analyst with Nevada’s Legislative Council Bureau.

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