State panel approves $1.3M in tech upgrades to Capitol for COVID, says aim is public access to proceedings

From the Idaho Press


BOISE — Plans for major tech upgrades to the state Capitol to allow more remote access in the age of COVID-19 won unanimous support from a state panel on Wednesday, including an addition to make sure the deaf and hard of hearing can access the service as well.

“The essence of this request is to ensure that the Legislature’s work is conducted in a transparent manner,” Eric Milstead, Legislative Services Office director, told the governor’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee (CFAC) on Wednesday.

“Article 3, Section 12 of the Idaho Constitution prohibits the Legislature from holding sessions in secret,” Milstead said. “And the funding in our request today will enhance the ability of the Legislature to stream its activities to the public, both audio and video, via Idaho Public Television. This includes the Legislature’s committee work and floor sessions.”

Milstead had requested $1,236,000 for the upgrades, but at the urging of Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, CFAC raised the total by $20,000 so it would also cover closed captioning for streaming of interim legislative committee meetings this fall.

Wintrow noted that the director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing estimates that 200,000 Idahoans are deaf or hard of hearing. The state already provides closed captioning so the deaf and hard of hearing can watch live streams of floor sessions of the full House and Senate, but hasn’t done so for committee meetings in the past.

Milstead noted, “An important component of this upgrade will be to potentially provide more opportunities for the public to testify in committee remotely. We’re driving toward that as a distinct possibility. We’ve got programmers working on that capacity as we speak.”

Wintrow moved to approve the request plus the additional funds for closed captioning, for a total of $1,256,000 from Idaho’s $1.25 billion share of federal coronavirus aid funds under the CARES Act. Her motion passed with unanimous support.

Alex Adams, Gov. Brad Little’s budget director and the chair of CFAC, noted that the panel received a number of emails expressing concerns that the request would allow state legislators to work from home, but not teachers, as Idaho looks to reopen schools in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic. But the upgrades won’t let lawmakers work from home, he said, and instead are aimed at improving public access to and engagement in the legislative process.

“That’s correct,” Milstead said. “There’s absolutely no funding being requested for personal devices that members could use on their own.”

Milstead said any remote work that lawmakers would do has been discussed as occurring “primarily from their offices in the Statehouse itself,” or from a conference room in the Capitol. That would happen, he said, when, for example, a committee hearing room is so full that social distancing couldn’t otherwise be maintained.

The proposal called for upgrades that would allow for social distancing in the Capitol during legislative meetings this fall and into the future, for remote work, and for a hybrid of the two.

Milstead said they will include installing seven new cameras in seven legislative committee hearing rooms, providing, for the first time, both audio and video streaming capacity from all legislative committee hearing rooms. Currently, all those rooms have audio streaming capacity, but video streaming is available only from two of them, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee’s ornate meeting room on the Capitol’s third floor, the former Idaho Supreme Court chamber; and Room EW42 in the lower level of the House wing, where the House Revenue & Taxation Committee meets.

The upgrades, he said, will “ensure that the public can observe legislative work and also allow the public to participate, regardless of the approach that the Legislature adopts, whether that’s working in simply a socially distancing fashion in the Statehouse, or if it’s a combination of social distancing and perhaps providing for some remote work.”

After the unanimous vote, Adams told Milstead, “Eric, we thank you for your work in bringing forward this proposal. We’ll finalize the paperwork, and you should be able to move forward early next week.”

From the Idaho Press

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