DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate — one of the most tradition-bound places in state government — is embracing the online era by offering live video streaming of floor debates over the Internet during the 2013 legislative session.
On Jan. 14, Iowans will be a computer click away from watching their favorite senators clasp their coat lapels to wax eloquent on the issues of the day or pound their desks to punctuate points of personal privilege in the public discourse that until now could only be witnessed from the Senate gallery or heard via the Legislature’s website.
The chamber’s political leaders had agreed several years ago to add video viewing to the live online audio streaming already provided to the public, but technical challenges such as adequate lighting and sound quality in the Senate had delayed implementation.
The Iowa House pioneered live streaming video access to its floor proceedings last January by investing $130,000 to install six video cameras that brought it in line with what’s becoming standard practice in statehouses across the nation.
“Whenever you can make government more transparent and have the public more engaged in their government, it’s better for everyone,” said Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who will assume her new duties as the Senate’s presiding officer when the 85th General Assembly is seated in January and she is sworn in as Senate president.
“There’s been live streaming of audio that’s been going on for quite awhile, so people could click on their computers and listen to debate if they wanted to. Now they can see the visuals and the audio. It’s just one more step in the right direction to be accountable,” she added.
Pam Greenberg, a researcher with the Denver-based National Council of State Legislatures, said live webcasts of legislative proceedings are available from at least one chamber in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. At least 30 states and the District of Columbia broadcast some legislative proceedings on television, she added.
Many legislatures also are offering webcasts of all or selected committee hearings, and more than half the states archive floor proceedings and about half archive some or all committee proceedings.
Mike Marshall, secretary of the Iowa Senate, said plans are under way to provide an archived data base of recorded Senate proceedings that could be accessed by viewers who were unable to watch a debate live. House leaders have indicated they also expect to create an archive of past session videocasts and eventually may offer webcasts of committee work.
Equipping the Senate chamber with five video cameras cost more than $200,000 but $135,000 was defrayed via an IowAccess grant that helped cover the initial cost of the semi-automated system’s hardware and video services, Marshall said.
Mark Willemssen, legislative facilities manager at the Statehouse, said installing the equipment was made easier by renovations made in 2001 as part of an ongoing Capitol building update.
“Logistically, it wasn’t too bad,” he said. “That chamber always has been a little dark. We’ve been waiting for technology to catch up with the structure we had to work with.”
Now, it remains to be seen if the expanded access will have a similarly dramatic impact on the public’s viewing habits. House officials who tracked viewership “hits” during the first year of their camera’s operations noted there were only a handful of instances when the online audience reached triple-digit numbers.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he expects the number of viewers will grow as more people become aware that the video connection is available, although he cautioned “it’s not going to be high def” quality similar to the video definition that regular television increasingly offers.
Gronstal and Jochum said they have not heard any objections to introducing cameras into a chamber, although Marshall said he has heard what he called “quizzical” responses that were second- or third-hand comments. There were concerns raised before the House introduced cameras last session of politicians grandstanding or playing to the cameras but generally those problems did not materialize, Gronstal noted.
“It didn’t really change decorum (in the House),” he said. “I don’t anticipate having significant challenges with this.”
If objections regarding cameras in the Senate chambers arise, it will fall to Jochum to arbitrate any disputes as presiding officer. “There’s nothing like breaking everything new in at once is there?” she said.
Based on the House experience, Marshall said he did not expect the video age would have a significant impact on the internal workings of the Senate.
“It certainly will provide a way for the citizens of the state who don’t have the ability to get down here to see what’s going on, to see how a debate in the Senate really works,” he said. “I think with an archive it will also give people an opportunity to go back and view a debate that maybe they missed or they heard about.”