The Resolution Might Be Televised: General Assembly Contemplates Remote Testimony

by Kate Meyer

Colorado, the nation’s eighth-largest state by land area, is justifiably renowned for its iconic landscapes, topographic variety, and diverse climate. However, with legislative sessions spanning treacherous winter and unpredictable springtime months, these quintessentially Coloradan features often conspire to impede the ability of the state’s citizens to travel to Denver to testify on legislation. Additionally, time, money, and accessibility concerns can deter residents of more distant locales. As a result, residents hailing from the more far-flung areas of the state can be underrepresented at legislative hearings. To address this inequity, there may soon be an alternative to the requirement to appear in-person in order to give testimony.

Last session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 14-1303, which enables and directs the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council to promulgate policies that facilitate the receipt of public testimony from remote locations around Colorado. The bill is the General Assembly’s latest effort to adapt modern technology to the legislative process, but don’t expect to see citizens using FaceTime to testify on every bill when the legislature convenes this January. Like many of its forays into the new era of communication, the legislature will implement this bill cautiously and, likely, incrementally.

What does HB14-1303 do? The bill directs the Executive Committee to “consider, recommend, and establish policies allowing legislative committees to take remote testimony from one or more centralized remote sites located around the state.” If the Executive Committee ultimately approves the use of remote testimony, at least one of those remote sites must be located on the Western Slope. And the Executive Committee is authorized specifically to contract with state institutions of higher education, which are typically well-known and well-equipped, that are willing to serve as those centralized remote sites. Further, the use of video conferencing can be implemented in phases.

What doesn’t HB14-1303 do? Although HB14-1303 will allow some remote testimony, logistical circumstances, fiscal realities, and technological uncertainties require that the scope of the bill be somewhat limited. Therefore, HB14-1303 also put a number of crucial limitations on the way in which remote testimony will be accepted. Specifically, the bill does not:

  • Require every committee to take remote testimony, on every bill, at every hearing;
  • Erode the General Assembly’s ability to establish and enforce rules of procedure and decorum;
  • Allow citizens to provide remote testimony from any location they wish (say, their kitchen tables or Waikiki Beach); or
  • Require two-way video-conferencing capabilities.

Other states allowing remote testimony. Two states currently permit remote public testimony. Like Colorado, these states’ capital cities are located in areas that often present geographic and meteorological challenges for many citizens.

  • Alaska’s Legislative Affairs Agency has set up 23 remote Legislative Information Offices throughout the state, which, in addition to providing general legislative information, allow members of the public to participate in committee hearings taking place in Juneau.
  • In 1991, the Nevada legislature appropriated moneys to set up a video conferencing link between committee rooms in the legislature and a room at the Cashman Field Convention Center in Las Vegas, the state’s most populous city.

What are the next steps? Legislative Council Staff (LCS) is now in the process of evaluating potential vendors for the technology that will be involved with remote testimony. Three committee rooms are being adapted to allow for remote testimony, and LCS is developing related policies for the Executive Committee to consider.

On September 5, 2014, the interim Water Resources Review Committee participated in a “trial run” of remote testimony. The committee met in the state Capitol, and received testimony from Hanna Holms at Mesa State University’s Water Center in Grand Junction. This “real-world” experience will undoubtedly inform the policies being developed.

The General Assembly will be checking in on committees’ use of remote testimony through the next two sessions. HB14-1303 requires the director of research at LCS, before August 1, 2016, to submit to the members of the General Assembly a report detailing the extent to which remote testimony has been utilized, the costs associated with offering remote testimony, and any technical or other issues that arose in connection with remote testimony.