Originally created 12/19/05

Is Georgia Legislature ready for prime time Webcasting?

ATLANTA - If you believe, as Justice Louis Brandeis did, that "sunshine is the best disinfectant," then you'll expect new legislative Webcasts to fill the Gold Dome with the scent of Lysol.

If you find C-SPAN fascinating and enjoy watching school board meetings on the local cable-access channel, then you're in for a treat from the Georgia House of Representatives.

When the General Assembly convenes Jan. 9, you'll be able to watch the sausage being made. Nearly every committee meeting will be recorded and broadcast live on the Internet.

You don't even need TiVo to record it while you're at work. Each Webcast will be archived and just a mouse click away whenever you want to relive the gritty cinematography of a committee "markup" session or the human drama of a public hearing.

BEFORE YOU SNICKER too loudly, consider that it wasn't long ago that some of the most critical legislative meetings took place behind closed doors, specifically the fabled "Green Door Committee," which wrote the state budget.

House Speaker Glenn Richardson showed off the new technology to reporters Wednesday and crowed, "I like to say we've thrown open the doors of government."

In many ways he and the Republicans have.

However, more open meetings are no guarantee the public will be fully informed. In Kansas, lawmakers have begun holding two meetings at once; one for show and one at a private level conducted through e-mail and instant messages from one colleague to another across the room during testimony and debates.

Nevertheless, companies pay thousands of dollars yearly for lobbyists to track legislation, which now can be done from Augusta, Savannah or Louisville at no cost.

For private citizens, a trip to Atlanta, a search for a parking place and a hassle through confusing legislative terminology used to be required to monitor the detailed progress of individual bills. A computer and an Internet connection now make all of that available free.

Yet, the system doesn't have all the bells and whistles it could. The mechanism won't automatically notify users of new developments on a particular bill. That will take a little effort.

Plus, the system could allow people to testify from remote locations, but Mr. Richardson opposes that.

"When someone is giving testimony, you want to be able to look at them to judge their credibility," the veteran courtroom brawler said.

STILL IN QUESTION IS how the expanded accessibility might change the legislative process.

Granted, most committee meetings are as dull as watching celebrity solitaire. But there are a handful of bills every year that generate wide interest and overflowing crowds in Capitol committee rooms, such as predatory lending, hate crimes and animal cruelty, in recent years.

These bills might have interested only special groups, but they were big groups with members spread across the state with the largest land mass east of the Mississippi.

So far, only six other states Webcast committee meetings, according to the speaker.

Mr. Richardson said he would release reports on how many "hits" or viewers each Webcast receives.

When asked whether he would pick committee chairmen based on the number of hits that they produced, he joked that the first priority would be whether they looked like television anchors.

He also predicted that the cameras would tempt lawmakers to grandstand, dragging out meetings and speeches unnecessarily. New rules, though, will empower chairmen to halt speech-making to keep meetings moving along.

NEVERTHELESS, legislators should be prepared for a gradual increase in the amount of constituent e-mail they receive. It's a simple thing to tap out a message if you're already at the computer to watch the committee meeting.

And it's possible some unlikely stars will be born as viewers grow to recognize who the bright, articulate and informed lawmakers are. Georgia's own Newt Gingrich eventually rose to become speaker of the U.S. House after making pithy speeches before minuscule C-SPAN audiences early in his career.

At the same time, bone-headed legislators could suffer as constituents get a glimpse at how ineffective they really are in Atlanta. And while the House Communications Office has put a logo on the screen to prevent use of videos in campaigns, even Mr. Richardson admits it could be difficult to prevent.

Of course, Republicans will take the credit for bringing the technology and greater openness, but the real reason is more likely generational than partisan.

Whatever the reason, voters will have a little more access, and the process gets a tad more disinfectant.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or walter.jones@morris.com.

More Openness

The new legislative Webcasts that begin Jan. 9 are part of the new openness of government groups. Each committee has its own Web site that will list its members, the legislation pending before it, and copies of reports and research generated on each bill. Most importantly, the sites have a schedule of committee meetings and the agendas for each meeting.

- Morris News Service


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