Sometimes you don’t know how good you’ve got it until it’s taken away.
Those trying to watch the Joint Appropriations Committee and Capital Finance and Investments Committee meeting Monday were out of luck as the meeting was not livestreamed on YouTube as has become regular for legislative meetings and hearings.
Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, said he was one of these people stymied in his attempt to watch the meeting, which was held in Moran just outside Jackson, while on vacation in Ireland.
In another era, getting to watch any legislative meeting live online would have been an extreme luxury. But after three years of increased access to public meetings, it has become the status quo, with nearly all legislative meetings now available on YouTube.
The JAC is one of the most preeminent committees in the Legislature, handling any piece of legislation with a fiscal impact. For the upcoming budget session, the committee holds an even larger significance.
But despite the interim session being more than halfway done and the 2024 legislative session approaching quickly, state Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, said people didn’t miss much. Monday’s meeting was relatively mundane with only one draft piece of legislation considered.
A notice was included in the meeting agenda that it wouldn’t be recorded live, and Driskill said he was mistaken about expecting the meeting being streamed online.
Legislative Service Office staff also reported that an audio recording of Monday’s meeting
will be made available in the coming days.
So, What Happened?
Monday’s JAC meeting was held at the Jackson Lake Lodge in Moran. Stith and Ryan Frost, an information officer for the LSO’s office, said it was decided by the committee chairs, Wyoming PBS and LSO staff to not livestream the meeting because of poor internet connectivity at the lodge.
Specifically, Frost said it was determined that it would be cost prohibitive to send PBS staff to Jackson for only a one day, four-hour meeting.
The Legislature has a memorandum of understanding with Wyoming PBS to pay up to $50,000 per interim session to film and produce all legislative meetings. These costs include paying up to two Wyoming PBS staff members’ mileage, meals and lodging for up to three days for each meeting held.
Stith said it was determined essential to have the meeting in Jackson to coordinate with the State Treasurer's Annual Conference, which runs Monday through Wednesday at the lodge.
Wasn’t Always This Way
Driskill said it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020 that meetings started regularly being broadcast on YouTube, over Zoom and other digital ways. Now, it’s rare a meeting isn’t.
“It’s increased a lot and now people expect it,” Stith said.
The oldest Legislature video on YouTube dates to May 2018.
During the 2023 interim session, only one other meeting wasn’t streamed live, and that was a Management Audit meeting where the only agenda item was an executive session — and the public has noticed.
Some of the most-viewed legislative session videos have thousands of views and it’s rare for any meeting these days to draw fewer than 100.
Frost said prior to the pandemic, the Legislature had a contract with Wyoming PBS to broadcast up to 10 interim meetings a year, significantly less than what’s held now.
Over the last three months alone, 36 legislative meetings have been streamed online.
An Evolution Of Transparency
Like many things in life, once one starts receiving a service, it’s easy to get accustomed to and expect it.
Sen. Charles Charles Scott, R-Casper, is the longest-serving member of the Legislature. Scott said when he first joined the Legislature in 1979, there was no form of recording, audio or video.
But as time went on, he said LSO staff started sporadically audio recording meetings so they could better understand the instructions given to them by legislators. Eventually, that evolved into all meetings being recorded, with access being given to the public to listen to the tapes.
Scott said around 2008, LSO started filming meetings.
“It’s been an interesting evolution to watch in existence,” he said. “Providing audio and video is just another step.”
Scott believes the Wyoming Legislature is much more transparent than other legislative bodies around the country, mentioning how a roll call vote is taken for all final votes.
“We ought to do as much of our work as possible in public,” he said.
There can be some drawbacks to video. Some committee chairs have expressed concern that technology makes it too easy for people to skip out on testifying in person, while Scott said the audio quality from people testifying remotely is sometimes less than ideal.
Scott said meeting sites are sometimes determined by whether there is enough bandwidth to stream a meeting online. Driskill said this has led to more meetings being held in Cheyenne and Casper than in the past.
“A lot of middle-sized towns we don’t know what to do about because they don’t have the bandwidth,” Driskill said.
Scott said there can be value to holding meetings in communities that don’t routinely have their perspectives shared, whether or not the meeting can be readily streamed to the public.
He gave the example of legislative meetings being held in the northern Wyoming town of Lovell. Hosting meetings there in the past allowed one of his committees to tour a local hospital and see the advanced technologies it was implementing thanks to its close proximity to Billings, Montana.
“It’s a circumstance where you may want to go to a place whether or not you have the convenience of good internet,” Scott said.
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.