OK, it was more like a derisive snort. I apparently am the last to know that the Hawaii Legislature actually does not record the vast majority of its committee hearings.
Even more unbelievable, there is not even a written report on what transpires in most of the hearings. No minutes. No summary. Unless a bill is passed and a “committee report” is drafted, the only record that a hearing even took place is the meeting notice that goes out in advance or in the bill’s history.
The House and Senate do broadcast, record and archive floor sessions.
Beyond that, it’s hit and miss. The Public Access Room, part of the Legislative Reference Bureau, oversees the Capitol TV broadcast project, which contracts with Capitol TV to cover some hearings. They are livestreamed over the Internet or broadcast via the Olelo Community Media public access cable channels. (Even though the programs carry an Olelo logo it’s really the small crew that is filming and producing them.)
Here’s what else I found out after talking to a number of people at the Capitol about this situation:
The Public Access Room is about to celebrate its 24th year. It hasn’t had a budget increase in 17 years.
The $175,000 that the project gets goes for two broadcast crews and equipment that is now aging and outdated. The crews do not even have an office right now, having been usurped from their space by the Sheriff’s Office, which apparently needed it as a locker room. So the bulky production units are trundled around the halls of the Capitol.
Capitol TV is able to record about 350 hours of hearings and sessions a year. But, with about 30 committees meeting and regular floor sessions, there are more than 3,000 hours of hearings and sessions every year. So only about 10 percent of what goes on at the Legislature is being recorded and archived.
Legislative leadership basically decides what gets filmed, in conjunction with the Public Access Room. For technical reasons, the crews can only broadcast two hearings at once. They manage to do about eight, maybe 10, events a week on average.
A few years ago, the Legislature required that the meetings and floor sessions be closed-captioned. That costs $150 per hour of video. No budget increase was included to cover the added costs. Do the math and you’ll see that it adds up to quite a chunk of the project’s budget.
More interesting is that every committee room has a video camera in it. That’s so lawmakers and Capitol denizens can watch what goes on in various committees via a closed-circuit system that has been in place for years. You just need to ask the committee clerk to turn it on to whatever you want to watch. Some lawmakers unofficially record the hearings they’re interested in on their own devices.
So why not just turn that equipment on all the time and record it? Debate over the allegedly unprofessional exchange between Rep. Hanohano and the student from Hawaii Pacific University could have been cleared up without all the political skullduggery that’s still going on behind the scenes. Any “investigation” into her behavior could have been a short one.
“It really is a case of who was there and who was able say who said this and who said that,” says House Clerk Brian Takeshita.
Takeshita and others say they don’t know why the Hawaii Legislature has not ever put an audio-video archiving system in place like most other states.
But more suspicious minds tell me there are many lawmakers who don’t want their behavior — and their occasional outbursts or political faux pas — to become YouTube fodder.
Others have a more practical view. Bills have been introduced from time to time to require the Public Access Room to record and archive everything and find a way to make it easily available to the public. Like an on-demand channel for the public.
But the Legislature has never been willing to pay for that kind of thorough, well-organized and professionally done video archive. The current system is struggling and needs to be shored up before a new initiative is mandated.
Senate Clerk Carol Taniguchi tells me the legislative powers that be are seriously looking at improvements to public access in general and the recording and archiving of the legislative process specifically. That could mean a broad overhaul with the kind of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature that most other states have.
“I think there is a recognition that this is one of the next things we want to do,” she says.
It strikes me that it’s long past time to do more than just fix the current system. The Legislature and its deliberations are arguably among the most important public business being done in a state.
Let’s give these people the money and the resources to do the job that is so vital to the public interest. To have no record of what goes on every day in the meeting rooms of the State Capitol is certainly not the best we can do.
Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.