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The technology connection.

A million constituents at a committee hearing? No reason why not, using today's communication magic.

Dorothy Ganter of Sunnyvale, Calif., is on the phone, and she is irate about an automobile insurance proposal facing its first hearing in the California Senate.

"I do not intend to pay anything for anyone else's insurance but my own on our three vehicles, thank you," Ganter says as lawmakers, lobbyists, expert witnesses--and television viewers across the state--listen in.

Business writer Andrew Tobias, a backer of the measure, tries to respond to the caller from his seat at the front of the hearing room.

"Well ma'am," he says, "the irony of this and the thing that--" Click.

"She doesn't intend to talk to anybody, anymore," says the host, Senator Art Torres. "Next caller."

Welcome to the age of tele-democracy.

Spurred in part by the term limits movement and the insurgent presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and former California Governor Jerry Brown, legislators across the nation are exploring ways they can use the latest technology to put themselves in closer touch with the voters.

Just a few years after several state legislatures went on the air with TV coverage of their sessions, statehouses from California to North Carolina are finding that the medium can restore for viewers, and voters, the kind of direct connection that people had with their representatives in simpler times.

Most are following in the footsteps of Alaska, which pioneered statewide tele-conferencing in 1978 to "meet the challenge of Alaska's geography," according to Michael Harmon, director of the Division of Public Services, Legislative Affairs Agency.

He added that the state averages about 1,000 teleconferences a year. "It's a real popular program," Harmon says, adding that more than 26,000 Alaskan residents have participated in the programs.

Nebraska joined the tele-democracy movement in 1989 with televised hearings on property taxes. Results from that first hearing that allowed citizens from across the state to testify on the issue were successful enough that the state went on to take public comment via teleconferencing on school finance, governance of higher education and a variety of other issues over the years.

In Nevada, the Legislature uses teleconferencing to link hearing rooms in Carson City with groups in Las Vegas, saving time and money for state officials, lobbyists, business representatives and constituents. People in both cities can see and hear each other as they discuss the issues. These long-distance hearings have studied privatization of government services, health insurance, wildlife issues and the state budget, among other things. Now, rather than spending a day trekking the 450 miles between the two cities, witnesses can leave their offices, say their piece and be back at their desks in 20 minutes.

"It's revolutionized the way we do business," says John Crossley, director of Nevada's Legislative Counsel Bureau.

In North Carolina, a state agency supplies cable television operators with an hour of highlights of committee hearings and then hosts an hour-long discussion of the issues. State officials--including legislative leaders and the governor--field viewers' calls in the studio. The program airs twice a week in prime time.

The program has been used as a forum for discussions on health care and state prisons, among countless other issues. A forum on services for people with disabilities allowed the disabled to participate without the inconvenience of traveling to the capital. Often, the callers are state employees looking to bypass the traditional chain of command to get across their points of view.

"Among our most important regular audience are people who work in the public sector, outside Raleigh," says Lee Wing, executive director of the Agency for Public Telecommunications. "This gives them access to high officials they would not otherwise have."

Although most of the footage shown on the program originates from the halls of the legislature, Wing works for the executive branch, so she can follow up directly with the agencies involved if a caller has a problem with state government.

"That's our job," she says, "to connect people with the public services they're taxed to pay for."

Legislative television programming in Minnesota involves gavel-to-gavel coverage, as well as half-hour public affairs programs aired on public television stations and over cable.

"We have a call-in program where we hire a professional talent as host, and two senators field questions on state, and sometimes even federal, issues," explains Steve Senyk, director of Senate Media Services.

He estimates legislative programming reaches approximately 500,000 households in Minnesota, and is relatively popular. "We know people are watching," Senyk says. "We have four phone lines, and they stay filled for our hour call-in program."

California's recent experiment with live, interactive, televised hearings pushes the idea further.

"It's the birth of democracy again," says Senator Torres, a Los Angeles Democrat who is using television as one way to break down barriers separating citizens from their government. "Information is vital. If people know what's happening, they will have much more control over the legislative process."

The hearing on auto insurance was aired on the California Channel, a junior C-SPAN that takes images supplied by the Legislature's two in-house studios, repackages the material and distributes the program to 50 cable systems with 2.5 million viewers throughout the state.

The privately funded, nonprofit corporation began telecasting Assembly sessions two years ago and added the Senate last year. It has also televised California Supreme Court hearings, and provided coverage of the state's economic summit in February.

The latest wrinkle grew out of Torres's sense that the November elections were one more signal from citizens that they are weary of the way government has been handling the public's business. He wrote a letter to David A. Roberti, president pro tem, suggesting that the Senate take action to strengthen its ties with constituents.

"The voters sent a clear message that business as usual is no longer acceptable," Torres wrote. "They want a government that works for them--not the special interests."

One of his suggestions was to use the Senate's television capacities to reach out to the voters. The first test of the technology came Feb. 3 when Torres arranged to televise a hearing about one of his own bills, allowing viewers to call in and testify as they watched at home.

In all, 17 callers were able to speak to the committee about the measure to transform California's auto insurance system into a "pay at the pump" program. Under the Torres bill, all drivers would be automatically covered and the costs would be borne by higher registration fees and a tax on gasoline. Nearly everyone who called seemed pleased by the format for the hearing. None were bashful about voicing their opinions about the bill or state government in general. It was as if Torres had given them the opportunity they'd always wanted: to speak to Sacramento.

The woman from Sunnyvale accused lawmakers of "gouging your way into my pocket." She added, "I don't care for you people from Sacramento." A man from Glendale warned the Legislature to "stay the heck out of the insurance business. If the state of California is involved in the chain of command, goodness help us." A caller from San Luis Obispo said, "I'll be quite blunt. I think the plan stinks." But a woman from Woodland provoked laughter in the hearing room packed with lobbyists when she said, "If the trial lawyers are against it, it must be a good plan."

Torres was happy with the results.

"For the first time, the public was participating in the drafting of legislation," he says. "That usually goes on in the back room here."

The first interactive hearing was widely promoted in the California press, so the heavy volume of calls was expected. But a second hearing held a month later received almost no advance billing--except on the California Channel itself. Yet that session also attracted more calls than Torres could handle. So many people called in that the producers stopped running the 800 number on the screen.

Paul Koplin, a founder and now president of the California Channel, sees the automobile insurance hearing as the tip of the iceberg that will transform the way legislatures conduct their business.

"In most state capitols, you become insulated," Koplin says. "This extends the gallery from a couple of dozen people to a couple million."

California is one of five states that provide gavel-to-gavel legislative coverage, according to a 1992 NCSL survey. The other four are Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and Rhode Island. New York and Oregon tried it, but quit because of the cost.

Although there are obstacles that so far have prevented other states from joining in, Koplin believes they will be overcome in many cases. States could clear the chief hurdles--the high costs and the lack of full-time legislative sessions to fill the air time--by combining legislative coverage with either local government meetings or sports. With the mixture of computer and television technology around the corner, the possibilities for opening up government are extraordinary.

Koplin thinks that one day viewers will be able not only to watch a hearing on television and call in with a question or comment, but will be able to summon the text of a bill or a committee analysis from their home computers and communicate easily with fellow supporters or opponents of measures over computer networks. Some people are alarmed by the pace of the change already taking place.

"This is seen as an intrusion by many members of the Legislature," Torres says. "It's almost laughable to me that people would have that attitude about letting the public into a hearing."

Further advances no doubt will raise questions about the future of representative democracy. For example, will viewers be polled during a committee hearing before the members cast their votes? Lee Wing of North Carolina thinks that would be a bad idea.

"Our attitude is, you don't interrupt the legislative process," she says. "You need a balance between representative and participatory democracy."

But Wing would love to be able to televise an informational hearing live and take comments from viewers. And Torres is sure that hearings like the ones he held will continue to prove popular with constituents. He is planning another health insurance hearing and is urging his fellow members to book time on public access channels in their districts and hold local, electronic town hall meetings.

"The notion of people coming out of their homes to attend a town meeting in the evening in some parts of Los Angeles just isn't reasonable any more," he says.

Daniel M. Weintraub is a staff writer in the Sacramento Bureau of the Los Angeles Times.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:tele-democracy
Author:Weintraub, Daniel M.
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Workable workers' comp.
Next Article:'Hey, didn't I see you on TV?' (public access cable television)

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