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Legislators don't want cameras in every committee room

BISMARCK -- The Legislature may not be as transparent in the future as some want it to be after House lawmakers said they do not want cameras in every committee room.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee added a provision to the Legislature's budget, Senate Bill 2001, that says they should not proceed with implementing a process to record and archive video of committee meetings during the session.

The Legislature said during the 2011 session that Legislative Management, which is made up of lawmakers, should install cameras in both chambers and committee rooms during the 2012 interim session. Cameras are now being used to live broadcast the daily floor sessions online and are already installed in two of the 14 committee rooms, but are not being used.

Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the biggest concern many committee members had was that live cameras would stifle the committee work.

"They could be detrimental to the committee," he said. "People tend to hold back when they know they are being recorded."

He said while the committee put the provision in the bill, Legislative Management still could opt to put cameras in each room. The provision merely says right now that the committee doesn't agree with the provision that was passed in 2011.

The Legislature gave itself $1.3 million for legislative wing equipment and improvements during the 2011-13 session. It proposes to put $500,000 toward equipment and improvements during the upcoming biennium.

Rep. Bette Grande, R-Fargo, said she doesn't see the point of adding cameras, thinking most won't follow the daily committee work.

"What we're saying and doing in committee is not the basis of legislative intent," she said, adding that cameras are not needed because the Legislature already is one of the most transparent in the country and anyone can easily take part in the process and speak to a legislator.

"You can't get any more open than this," she said, pointing around the House chamber.

"We get run over all the time, we can't even walk down the hallway without getting stopped," added Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, who sits in front of Grande and is also a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Grande also said people are always welcome to submit testimony to the committee through email or their legislators. But Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, said that may not be enough.

"What if we have questions? Legislators can't ask questions if people are not there to answer," he said.

Guggisberg believes cameras and other technology would allow anybody to testify through a teleconference system.

"We want to be equal and provide everyone an equal opportunity to testify, but that's not how it works if you have to drive to Bismarck," he said.

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, said he's not opposed to the idea of equipping each room with cameras, but would like to see the value in it first before moving ahead with every room.

He proposed testing the idea with the two rooms that are equipped, and seeing what kind of response constituents have.

"If people follow it and it makes sense, put them in all the rooms," he said.

Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, who wasn't present when the committee voted to adopt the amendment, said she's indifferent to the idea, but wants more people to get involved with the legislative process.

"People are paying more attention with the video in the chamber," she said about the recorded floor sessions. "Many people are commenting on various floor speeches and decisions."

The bill is currently in a conference committee with three lawmakers from each chamber trying to hash out the changes each chamber made.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.