Our opinion: Post-pandemic, let's keep virtual testimony before Oregon's lawmakers
The Oregon Capitol was closed during the 2021 legislative session due to the pandemic. Because lawmakers cannot pass laws without the input of the public, testimony during the session went virtual.
We've heard that testimony in the short 2022 session will be virtual as well, with construction and renovations at the Capitol limiting the people's access.
Good. Testimony via video conference should become the norm at the Legislature and should be here to stay, even when the public can safely enter the building.
For decades, we've kidded ourselves that the legislative process is open to everyone in Oregon. We've promoted the falsehood that, if you have a full-time job and a family, and you live in Astoria, La Grande, Grants Pass or Klamath Falls, it's easy to drive to Salem, sit in a hearing room, testify for two to three minutes, and then get back home.
Of course, it isn't. It's a Herculean task. It's much simpler to make the relatively short trek from Portland or Eugene, which means that folks from the more liberal-leaning urban centers testify more often than those from the conservative-leaning residents outside the Willamette Valley.
Virtual testimony eliminates that urban/rural unfairness. It takes no more time to log in from Pendleton than from Portland.
The Oregon Legislative Information System has been running for years and provided live-streaming of committee meetings and floor sessions of the House and Senate.
In addition to the biennial field hearings by the joint budget committee on the state's two-year spending priorities, lawmakers this year heard via conference call from Oregon residents on the topics of legislative and congressional redistricting — a task they face every 10 years after a census — as well as recovery measures following the 2020 Labor Day wildfires. For wildfire recovery, legislators ended up conducting four virtual hearings — one for each region affected by the fires, though the coast was combined with the metro area — totaling 14 hours.
That kind of access to the legislative process must continue — and expand to local governments.
People from Union, Curry or Malheur counties often complain that they're not listened to. A survey conducted in March by the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center found that rural Oregonians were more likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to agree with the statement that "the people running my community don't really care much about what happens to me."
That's not surprising given that we've made it harder for those Oregonians to speak directly to the people who are debating the laws and budgets that affect them.
"The in-person-only nature of meetings excludes those who do not or cannot drive; many disabled individuals; rural residents who live far from their county seat or city hall; those who have family, school or other obligations that prevent them from coming in person; and those of lower income who cannot leave jobs to testify in-person," wrote Mary Kyle McCurdy, deputy director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, a nonprofit organization that has monitored thousands of local land-used hearings.
McCurdy was one of nearly 100 Oregonians from across the state and political spectrum who submitted (electronic) testimony in favor of House Bill 2560, which requires all public bodies in Oregon to the "extent reasonably possible," allow residents to participate remotely in any proceeding where in-person and written testimony is allowed.
The bill, which passed, is an important step. But the "reasonably possible" clause gives us pause.
While an estimated 98% of Oregon households have broadband access, distribution is still uneven. Most of the 18 counties west of the Cascades average 90% or better access, but only a couple of counties east of the Cascades — Deschutes and Umatilla — exceed that mark.
The push to bring stable internet service to rural and low-income students to facilitate on-line learning must expand to include all Oregon residents to allow on-line civic participation.
And lawmakers also must deal with the issue of public records. If every local budget committee is live-streamed, does it have to be recorded? And, if so, is that video a public record?
We are fervent advocates for open government, but also recognize that there is a financial cost to transparency that could present an undue burden on local boards and commissions.
That's why we were glad that a quick survey of the associations representing Oregon's counties, cities and school boards found all three supporting HB 2560 and willing to work with the legislature to ensure that the "possible" becomes a reality for all Oregonians wishing to engage with their governments.
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