AR Senate considering an end to its fight against live-streaming meetings
by David Ferguson
“Incoming Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, says he wants members to vote later this year to open up the Senate chamber and its committee meetings for live-streaming.”[i]
This is welcome news. If the Senate approves live-streaming and video archiving, it will benefit both the voters and the members of the Senate.
It will benefit the public in knowing what is going on and what is being said. Don’t expect the public to stay glued to the computer to watch every minute but there are important issues that come up every year where people want to know what is going on. It may be a debate on gun rights, taxes, or something affecting your business or employers.
There is enough public interest that currently the public takes the initiative to video some meetings. Most of these recordings are funded by various groups such as Conduit For Action or by individuals. The videos can be good quality or not so good based on the acoustics of the committee room and where the videographer is able to set up.
It will also be a benefit to Senators. When I worked for the legislature, one of the big complaints I heard was the frustrating occurrences of a legislator being misquoted by the press or by someone who attended a legislative meeting. Video of the full proceedings makes it easier to refute inaccurate statements and correct the record.
Perhaps it will also help the decorum of the Senate. Although I have no first-hand knowledge, some longtime observers told me the decorum in the Senate was at a low point as some Senators talked down to their colleagues and did not keep their anger in check. Perhaps a video camera will be a deterrent to such conduct.
I always assumed the Senate would eventually install video equipment as members of the House of Representatives ran for Senate seats and resulted in more Senators used to being videoed. It is just taking longer than I expected.
Senate Stand Against Video – The Beginnings
Few Senators know why the Senate has been so resistant to providing video, but I know because I was there.
The Senate had always been less open to ideas such as voting machines and microphones, but an insult by the House of Representatives made the Senate more recalcitrant.
Former Speaker of the House Robbie Wills deserves a lot of credit for pushing through videoing in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, he received some bad advice from a couple of people on how to go about implementing the change. The advice was “WE ARE THE HOUSE and we shouldn’t bother consulting with the Senate about any of our plans.” Why should the House need to consult with the Senate? Most importantly, two committee rooms the House arranged to wire into the video system didn’t belong to the House. Two committee rooms in the Big MAC Building[ii] were jointly shared by the House and Senate through the Arkansas Legislative Council.
When some Senators learned the House planned to dictate policy for the jointly held committee rooms without the Senate even being notified they were livid. Quickly the issue went from one of providing video to a power struggle between the Senate and House. The Senate laid down the law and refused to allow the House permission to install video in the committee rooms in the Big MAC building. The power struggle escalated even further as the Senate flexed its muscle and refused to allow Senate committees to meet jointly with the House in House committee rooms equipped for video. The House and Senate committees usually meet together between legislative sessions and several House committee rooms were used until the House’s misstep.
Insult to the public – 2017
With the Senate continually being criticized for operating in the shadows by fighting video and audio recording, the Senate decided to provide audio of the Senate chamber. The way the Senate did it the move looked like the Senate was thumbing its nose at the public. The audio was terrible, I tried to listen once. Many of the Senators failed to use their microphones making it impossible to follow the questions and answers. The audio was not recorded so if you heard about a big debate, you could not listen to it after the Senate met. Plus, the audio was only of the chamber and not the Senate committees. It looked like the Senate was thumbing it nose at the public.
Will some committees still be unavailable?
There are some important questions remaining about the Senate proposal being discussed for live-streaming and video archiving meetings. Will some legislative committees still not be videoed? The article I read, talks about videoing Senate committees, but doesn’t mention joint committees or the joint space in the Big Mac Building and joint committees. Perhaps they will include all committees.
All budget bills go through the Joint Budget Committee. It is a joint committee, not a Senate Committee, and it meets, not in a Senate committee room but the joint House and Senate space in the Big MAC Building. JBC and its subcommittees are extremely important. The Special Language Committee of JBC is notorious for inserting substantive changes to law in budget bills. Unlike most bills, budget bills have only one hearing. Most bills have a House and a Senate hearing.
It is not just the Joint Budget Committee. Other joint committees include the Legislative Council, Joint Auditing Committee, and the Joint Committee on Public Retirement & Social Security Programs.
Flipping the table on the House?
For years the House has been viewed as the good guys for being more open and the Senate the bad guys. If the Senate opens all their meetings to video, then the Senate becomes the good guys and people will ask, “Why doesn’t the House of Representatives video its Rules Committee?” The House Rules Committee handles big issues such as alcohol, gambling, and tobacco and it meets in a room only a few feet from the House video control room … but is not videoed.
It would be fun to see the Senate have the high ground for once, but it would also be good for the House complete its video project after more than eight years.
David Ferguson is a former Director of Arkansas’ Bureau of Legislative Research, having a thirty-two-year career as an attorney for the Arkansas legislature. After retirement from state service his primary focus has been beef cattle farming. He is also a former officer of Conduit for Action.
[ii] 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock