In Washington State, a Way to Connect With Olympia When Winter Puts It Out of Reach

 In winter, Stevens Pass and other mountain crossings in Washington state can make it difficult to travel to Olympia from areas east of the Cascades.

In winter, Stevens Pass and other mountain crossings in Washington state can make it difficult to travel to Olympia from areas east of the Cascades. Washington State Department of Transportation


Connecting state and local government leaders

Relatively few states have authorized remote testimony in the legislative process, but the early use of the practice has shown successes in the Evergreen State.

SEATTLE — In certain states, topography and harsh weather conditions can sometime isolate one region from another during the winter weather months.

Residents of eastern Washington state know this especially well this time of year when winter storms and snow-removal work can force the closure of the handful of passes that cross the Cascade Range or otherwise make highway travel difficult across mountains and the vast interior of the Columbia Plateau.

That can put some official proceedings at the State Capitol in Olympia, located in the Puget lowlands west of the Cascades, out of reach from residents in places like Spokane, the Tri-Cities or Yakima, east of the mountains.

And even when weather conditions are ideal for crossing the Cascades, a five-hour drive from Spokane to Olympia via Interstate 90 and Snoqualmie Pass isn’t necessarily a leisurely journey.

Those travel headaches can deter many from engaging in the legislative process.  

A similar story can be told in Colorado, where crossing the Rocky Mountains or the eastern plains to reach Denver in snowy conditions can be difficult, or in Alaska, where constituents might not necessarily be snowed in, but they’re more than 1,000 miles away from Juneau.

Alaska, Colorado and Washington are among the few states that have authorized the use of remote testimony at the legislative level, which allows citizens contribute to policy discussions without making the trek to the state capital.

I wrote about the Washington state Senate’s pilot program two years ago for Route Fifty’s parent publication, Government Executive, when the use of remote testimony was still in its relative infancy in the Evergreen State. The pilot project has worked with local education partners to host the video conferencing used to connect legislators in Olympia and constituents who want to attend committee hearings remotely.

The pilot project during the 2015 legislative session received favorable reviews, though there were some technical headaches. 

As Jason Mercier, the director of Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, noted in a blog post on Wednesday, Senate leaders intend to use remote testimony again during the 2017 session, with committee chairs allowed to offer it at their discretion.

Washington state lawmakers will convene for the 2017 legislative session on Jan. 9.

There are, naturally, rules and protocols for how constituents can participate remotely, and just like any legislative hearing, the committee chair has a lot of discretion about the amount of time devoted to public testimony.

Some other fine print, according to a remote testimony backgrounder from Senate Committee Services:  

Registering to testify at a remote location does not guarantee the opportunity to testify.  For example, technical issues could prevent communication between the remote site and the committee hearing room. Additionally, bill hearings are often delayed or rescheduled and there is no guarantee the bill will be heard when originally scheduled.

While offering opportunities for remote testimony is a no-brainer for open government advocates, it’s not as simple as setting up a video conferencing platform.

The National Council of State Legislatures, in a State Legislatures magazine feature last summer, detailed some of the questions states need to consider, using Washington state’s experience as a model:

Remote public hearings raise a number of procedural and logistical questions. What happens if the technology fails? How will open meeting and notice requirements be met? Will all legislators and the public be able to see and hear all testimony being given?

Before conducting remote hearings, the Washington Senate developed a comprehensive set of questions on hearing management, staffing, public participation, security and information technology:

  • Will remote testimony be subject to the same rules and procedures as in-person testimony (timers, handouts, personal information, decorum)?
  • Will the chair have the ability to mute remote testifiers?
  • Who will staff remote sites, what will be their responsibilities and how will they be trained?
  • How will committee staff in on-campus hearings communicate privately with remote staff?
  • How will remote staff manage crowds and hearing disruptions?
  • Will there be dedicated security staff at remote sites?
  • What is the appropriate response when a remote connection is lost? Should the hearing be postponed or continued until the connection is restored?

Remote testimony is a great idea and more state legislative stakeholders should consider it, even if they aren’t dealing with the difficulties of closed mountain passes and treacherous winter-driving conditions.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

NEXT STORY: Distressing Stat on Colorado’s Overdose Deaths Underscores Urban-Rural Disparities