A group of Republicans and Democrats filed a resolution Tuesday asking the state to create and implement a plan to permanently livestream and then archive for public use all floor and committee meetings of the Delaware General Assembly.
Doing that will increase transparency and improve public access to the actions of the legislature, the sponsors said in a press release.
The idea of livestreaming the General Assembly was much talked about, but not acted on, before the COVID-19 pandemic set in. The General Assembly decided last year to meet virtually, which led to the livestreaming of sessions and committee meetings that the public could watch online.
Rep. Mike Smith, R-Pike Creek Valley said in a press release that while progress has been made in public access, there are still significant shortfalls and gaps.
“Committee meetings are currently being streamed, but most are not recorded for public review,” Smith said. “Once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, we need to take the next step and build on this experience.
“Speaker (Pete) Schwartzkopf has already taken some action, directing the Division of Research to begin exploring the issue. This resolution would formalize the process, creating a clear framework, allowing for public observation and participation, and establishing a firm goal and timeline for making digital transparency a permanent feature of the Delaware General Assembly.”
House Concurrent Resolution 10 would need to be passed by both the House and the Senate to take effect. It would not carry the weight of law, but most state agencies comply with resolutions. HCR10 asks the Division of Research, Office of Management and Budget, and Delaware Department of Technology & Information to work together to create a plan by Jan. 2022 so funding can be approved for it to begin in 2023.
Jesse Chadderdon, Senate Majority Caucus chief of staff, said the resolution is not needed.
“All of us support investing in the kind of technology necessary to make the business of the General Assembly more accessible to the public,” he said. “Just last week, Legislative Council — comprised of leadership from the Majority and Minority caucuses in both Chambers — unanimously voted to form a committee to study Legislative Hall holistically. That includes studying the technology that would help us accomplish many of the goals outlined in HCR 10 over the long term.”
He said offering public access to General Assembly proceedings via livestream has increased public participation in extraordinary ways.
“As Republicans push to make some of these same technologies long-term fixtures in and around Legislative Hall, ” he said, “they would be well served to stop undermining public confidence in the merits of the General Assembly convening virtually.”
House Republicans have never claimed that conducting legislative business virtually does not have its merits, responded Joe Fulgham, communications officer for the Delaware House of Representatives Republican Caucus.
“However, we believe it is a pale substitute for the richer and more dynamic experience of carrying out business at the capitol with the public in attendance,” Fulgham said. “We look forward to returning to this more desirable method as soon as possible.”
Fulgham said the study of Legislative Hall that Chadderdon referred to was overdue and welcome.
“However, Legislative Hall’s technological needs would only be a facet of this effort,” Fulgham said, “and it guarantees no positive outcome regarding the issues highlighted in the resolution.”
HCR 10 focuses solely on streaming, archiving and digital access, Fulgham said.
“The measure calls for a transparent and publicly accessible process,” he said. “It not only contains a firm timeline to accomplish the end goal, it requires that an interim protocol be set up to maintain and expand the public’s digital access to the legislature while a permanent system is formulated and implemented.”
Ultimately, Fulgham said, “Expanding the public’s access to the workings of the legislature should be a non-partisan cause on which all lawmakers can find common ground. It is encouraging that early on, the measure has gained some limited bipartisan support.”
The bill has 17 sponsors, three of them Democrats. Smith and Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, are the sponsors in the House and Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, is the primary Senate sponsor. Shupe is CEO of Delaware Live.
Among others signed on to the resolution are Senate President Pro Tempore Dave Sokola, D-Newark; Rep. Larry Lambert, D-Brandywine Hundred; and Rep. Eric Morrison, D-Glasgow.
A similar resolution was introduced in January 2020 but died before the end of the 150th General Assembly in June.
“Access to our legislative process is vital to ensuring a free and open society,” said Pettyjohn in the press release. “If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that implementing livestream technology is possible and necessary to engage the public when they are not able to be present in person. Even after the doors to Legislative Hall open and we get back to normal, video and audio should always be made available for those who wish to stay informed.”
Lawmakers must set clear expectations if true transparency for the public is to be achieved, Shupe said in the press release.
“Furthermore, our goal as lawmakers should not be to simply film the legislative process but to use technology to encourage active involvement from Delaware residents so their voices can be heard and considered when laws that affect their daily lives are being created and voted on,” Shupe said.
The sponsors pointed out in their press release that Speaker of the House Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, hailed the livestreaming of meetings in a December press release.
He pointed out that until 2020 “if you wanted to deliver a public comment during a committee meeting, you had to be in that room in Legislative Hall. If you wanted to watch a roll-call vote, you had to be in the House or Senate chamber. But now, every committee meeting we hold, every floor debate we have and every vote we take will be streamed live online.”
In saying that the virtual sessions would continue until the pandemic is under control, Schwartzkopf and Sokola said in a press release that the House and Senate’s 22 combined committee meetings averaged 64 attendees, well above the numbers that can fit in most committee meeting rooms in Legislative Hall.
The proposed resolution asks for the livestreaming and archiving plan to include the recommended equipment, software, infrastructure and training needed for the project and its estimated total cost, the sponsors said.
It should ready no later than January 2022 so the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee could include funding for it in the FY 2023 budget, the resolution says. The proposal should also include an interim protocol for streaming and recording all legislative proceedings until the permanent system was implemented, the sponsors said.
HCR 10 has been assigned to the House Administration Committee.
Sponsors also include Sen. Gerald Hocker, R-Ocean View; Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydale; Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford; Rep. Richard Collins-R-Millsboro; Rep. Tim Dukes, R-Laurel; Rep. Kevin Hensley, R-Townsend; Rep. Charles Postles, R-Milford; Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Pike Creek; Rep. Danny Short-R-Seaford; Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton; and Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Camden-Wyoming.