3 Reasons to Post Nebraska Legislature Videos Online

3 Reasons to Post Nebraska Legislature Videos Online

Every bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature receives a public hearing. In many ways, this is an extraordinary public service Nebraska offers.

Nebraskans can bring numerous policy ideas to state senators, and as long as they can find a member willing to introduce legislation, those ideas will be considered by a legislative committee.

Members of the public have the right to attend these hearings to go on the record with their thoughts, and senators can learn more by asking questions of their constituents.

But as great as this process is, it may not be reaching its full potential. After all, most Nebraskans don’t have the opportunity to attend committee hearings, which take place in-person in Lincoln, usually on a weekday afternoon.

This is a big state we live in, and most Nebraskans are working during that time.

There is a way to watch—but not participate—live online through Nebraska Public Media’s video streams of legislative hearings and floor debate.

But even that resource has its limits. If you can’t watch live, you may never know what happened, because the video recordings of these proceedings are not made freely available afterward. This crucial record just disappears from public view, like the self-destructing message from Mission Impossible. 

There is still an official transcript, but those take time for the Legislature to publish. By then, a bill you care about might be long gone, or a bill you oppose could be well on its way to becoming law.

If you’d like to watch this episode on YouTube, press play below. Or you can listen to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

Even a tech-savvy person who knows how to look up legislation on the official Unicameral website may find little or no information about the status of that bill.

After all, state senators are under no obligation to cast an up-or-down vote on a bill, either when it’s heard in committee, or if the bill gets to the full Unicameral and is filibustered. It’s reasonable to want to know why a bill did or didn’t move forward, and what senators and constituents have to say about the legislation.

In 46 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, lawmakers offer a solution to this problem. They provide an online recording archive of their legislative proceedings. Usually, these video or audio recordings are posted to a state website or to a YouTube channel.

Nebraska is one of just a handful of states that isn’t offering this resource. I’m tempted to say this is such an obvious error, that we could just end the episode right here, and almost everybody would agree this situation should be changed.

But our state has had the technology to make these recordings available to Nebraskans for quite some time. It hasn’t proactively happened on its own. So today, I’d like to discuss 3 reasons why the Unicameral should join the rest of the country in posting its recordings online for everyone to see and share, and why concerned Nebraskans can’t let up on this issue until the job is done.

  1. Nebraskans have no idea what’s going on.
  2. Withholding legislative videos deprives Nebraskans and their leaders of history and institutional knowledge.
  3. The state legislative process provides an alternative to nationalized political debate.

#1. Nebraskans have no idea what’s going on.

So, what do I mean when I say: Nebraskans have no idea what’s going on?

Sharable video is everywhere online today. It familiarizes us with trends, data, and major events. In practically no time at all, I can share a video of my favorite plays from the Creighton Bluejays basketball game, I can watch the opening skit from Saturday Night Live, and I can even send you a link to this episode of Nebraskanomics. 

Everyone living through this time knows that even from a warzone in a foreign country, information is being shared through videos on social media. 

As of this recording in March 2022, it’s a sad fact that most Nebraskans can know and share more about these events than what’s happening in their own state legislature. Unless your job or hobby involves manually recording meetings of the Legislature on your own device, there’s no timely way to show other people what happened in the State Capitol on a given day.

Maybe the news will have some brief sound bites, but nothing that can compare to actually watching the real thing. 

And look, we can’t force anybody to watch these videos or care about legislative matters as much as they might care about other things that are entertaining or shocking. But that doesn’t mean the state should make it harder for people who do care to find out what’s really going on. 

Experience and data also show that when the Legislature acts without giving the public enough information, Nebraskans can be confused about the laws they live under.

In 2021, the state created a new property tax relief program. This program required taxpayers to file their state taxes properly to receive a tax credit. 

In part because taxpayers weren’t aware of the program, the initial round of tax relief left a lot of Nebraskans behind. Once tax season was over, more than fifty million dollars remained unclaimed. 

In December of 2021, we asked 812 voters in a scientific telephone poll if they had remembered to claim their new property tax credit. A total of 75% of respondents said they either didn’t claim the credit or weren’t sure.

Maybe participation would have been higher if more Nebraskans could have watched the process of the law being created, and had additional opportunities to see lawmakers explain what their proposed policy would require them to do.  

So, what are the obstacles that have left Nebraskans confused about state government? It’s obviously not technology. One thing I’ve learned in watching the Legislature is that different branches and levels of government are more often in debate with each other about how the law should work than the public who is governed by them.  

Currently, live online video coverage of the Legislature is provided by Nebraska Public Media, which you might know as the public television affiliate in Nebraska that offers PBS programming. But Nebraska Public Media is not simply a nonprofit media outlet. They are part of a state agency funded by the Legislature called the Nebraska Educational Telecommunications Commission. 

Let me put it this way, with no intention of impugning anyone’s character: The main state entities involved in producing and maintaining recordings of legislative videos were really hoping nobody in the Legislature would make them post these videos online. 

Sometimes this happens in government because agencies don’t want to add to their plate—sometimes it happens because leaders want to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done. 

When asked about the lack of available recordings in the past, Nebraska Public Media fell back on their belief that the videos belonged to the Legislature, and that it was up to the Office of the Clerk, who keeps legislative records, to decide how to use them. 

For their part, the Clerk’s Office feared placing the videos online would either result in the videos being used for campaign purposes or that the state would get in legal trouble at some point over copyright or accessibility concerns. 

And, frankly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say some members of the Legislature may have liked the status quo, too. 

Take it from a recovering politician, most elected officials don’t really enjoy hearing your negative feedback about what they said or did, so keeping this content away from the general public is one less concern a state senator would have in doing their job, which admittedly is already time-consuming, poorly paid, and not very glamorous.

But in a democracy that values free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of information, none of these excuses are acceptable reasons for withholding access to recordings of public meetings that are funded by taxpayers. 

Finally, in 2022, Sen. Tom Brewer introduced Legislative Bill 777. This was not the first bill seeking a state legislative video archive, but it was the first to receive a priority designation from the Speaker of the Legislature, which can help it move up the legislative agenda. The bill received no opposition in its committee hearing, and it was advanced to full legislative debate.

But the committee was not unanimous in advancing the bill. Clearly, there are still some worries policymakers have that they are willing to go on the record about. That means it’s important for Nebraskans to contact their senators and not take for granted that the bill will pass. 

Anyone who spends time in the State Capitol knows Nebraska school children visit to learn about their state’s history and system of government. But our civic education doesn’t end when we graduate from school.

That brings us to our second reason to put legislative videos online.  

#2. Withholding legislative videos deprives Nebraskans and their leaders of history and institutional knowledge.

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to chat with an interesting historical figure? It’s amazing that thanks to film, video, and audio recordings, so much of the 20th century can still be watched and heard much like it happened today. Right on YouTube, users can see and hear FDR in his speech to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor, or watch the people of Germany tear down the Berlin Wall.

But now that we’re in the 21st century in Nebraska, the history that’s happening right in front of us in Lincoln isn’t made readily available to the public, the media, and policymakers.

If we want to watch the debate about that property tax relief bill, we won’t find it on the legislative website. If lawmakers want to update a law that was passed years ago, text transcripts may be all they have for understanding how the current law came to be.

And events that happened only a decade ago can seem ancient to some Nebraska state senators. Remember, senators are limited to two consecutive terms, so most Nebraskans elected to the Unicameral weren’t serving during past historical events that shaped state policymaking, and they may not be aware of previous legislative efforts similar to those happening today.

In the committee hearing for the bill to create a legislative video archive, some senators expressed confusion about whether these videos belong to the Legislature in the first place. If the people responsible for making the laws don’t know whether they have access to these records, how much can we reasonably expect the average Nebraskan to know?

Now, here’s one fact that will come as some relief. Not all videos of past legislative meetings have been lost to history. 

Somewhere in the Clerk’s Office, there is an offline archive of old legislative meetings. They’re just not easy for a regular person to access.

That’s why Legislative Bill 777 would also require the state to make previously recorded videos available. I’m not sure how far back the archive goes, but the more the state can preserve and share with Nebraskans, the more the people, events, and lessons of the past can help inform our civic involvement now and in the future.  

I want future generations to have the benefit of our knowledge and experiences today, and one of the best ways we can help prepare our successors is by doing our own homework on those who came before us.

We’ve discussed before on Nebraskanomics that Nebraska needs to do a better job telling its story and inviting people to be part of the Good Life. But we also need to invite the Nebraskans who already live here to take part in their own state and see the potential that’s right in front of them. That brings us to our third reason for putting legislative videos online in an easily searchable and shareable format.

#3. The state legislative process provides an alternative to nationalized political debate. 

At the Platte Institute, we focus heavily on Nebraska. I’m really glad to be hosting Nebraskanomics and not United-States-o-nomics. I don’t really want to go to Washington and try to convince 535 members of Congress and the President how to do their jobs.

That’s a pretty crowded space. I would always rather focus on working with the 49 senators and governor we have here at home, who are not only much more approachable, but know a lot more about what it’s like to live here in Nebraska.

Federal issues can be important, but we all see the dysfunction and overwhelming partisanship in national politics.

Your individual ability to make Nebraska a better place by taking action in Lincoln, or your own community for that matter, is unbelievably greater than your capacity to change the whole country from the top down.

When we make laws in Nebraska, we’re setting the stage for what kind of place the state will be going forward, potentially for a long time. 

Nebraska may be a lower population state today, but the laws we live under impact a significant amount of real estate. Just as a thought experiment, consider that if Nebraska was its own country, we’d be a geographically larger nation than a number of economically and culturally significant places in the world. Bigger than South Korea, bigger than Greece, Ireland, Switzerland, or Taiwan. 

You might hear about these places on the news sometimes and think the decisions that are made there have global consequences. But what happens right here in front of us is shaping the world, too.

It’s also shaping your daily life in noticeable ways. Our Legislature decides what kinds of taxes we pay, the types of jobs or businesses we can have, or what we’re allowed to do with our property, among other things.

The public doesn’t benefit from national partisan political debates taking up all the attention from our state policy process. The main winners are those who want to use divisions to advance their own ambitions. And yet, it shouldn’t be surprising that Washington-style partisanship is the default response, even in Nebraska’s nonpartisan Unicameral. Most Nebraskans aren’t being acquainted with all the ways they can make a difference in the Legislature.

Creating easily shareable and timely videos of the state legislative process can help familiarize more Nebraskans with who their state senators are, what issues they care about, and what’s being addressed in Lincoln. With a typical biennial legislative session including more than 1,000 different bills, there’s always something to get involved with. 

Having access to these recordings would also give more people a chance to see Nebraskans of different parties working together to solve problems. And it holds our elected officials more accountable to govern on the issues Nebraskans care about, which often defy national partisan politics. 

As I mentioned before, one point of resistance to archiving legislative videos has been that these recordings could be used as political ammunition by parties or candidates.  

But under the status quo, a lot of what Nebraskans hear about what’s happening in the Legislature already comes second-hand from partisan officeholders and partisan-leaning influencers. It shouldn’t be surprising that committed conservatives and progressives might feel like they’re getting a raw deal in this state, or that they see senators from other parties as enemies. 

Most of the time, nobody’s giving it to Nebraskans straight, that for the issues they care about to move forward in Lincoln, they’re often going to have to make peace with people they disagree with.

And by its own rules, the Unicameral encourages cooperation across party and ideological lines. Otherwise, any bill could be filibustered by a minority of members. 

Nonpartisanship doesn’t mean we give up our principles or our points of disagreement, but it does mean not allowing elections and national politics to prevent us from moving forward where we do agree. It might sound obvious, but the one thing Nebraskans have in common is that we all live in Nebraska, and nobody from Washington is ever going to care more about improving this state than we will. 

I think seeing the inside of the state legislative process, and learning its rules and norms, has a mellowing effect on most people. Certainly, the Legislature itself rewards that approach. It allows us to more productively debate and discuss what kind of state we want to live in and how we create policies that the vast majority of us can live with.

But leaders in the Legislature could also use some agitation from outside at times, to prevent the body from becoming complacent. More Nebraskans need to be invited into the process, and publishing an online archive of committee hearings and floor debate recordings will have a ripple effect for those of us who care about state policy. 

Suddenly, every media outlet in the state, large or small, will be able to quickly search legislative proceedings online and review them as many times as they need to provide coverage. 

Every blogger and activist can update their networks on events as they happen. People who don’t watch TV news can be informed about issues they care about, and people who do watch or read the news can investigate the issues in greater detail. 

Even state senators themselves, who often have to run from one meeting to another in the State Capitol, will have an easy way to catch up and share information with their constituents. 

Not every bill in Lincoln attracts a lot of attention, and nor will every video. But when Nebraskans want to know what’s going on in Lincoln, a public archive of legislative videos will make sure they are never lacking the tools to become more informed and involved in their state government.   

Once again, these are just three reasons that we’ve needed to put the Unicameral’s videos online:

  1. Nebraskans have no idea what’s going on.
  2. Withholding legislative videos deprives Nebraskans and their leaders of history and institutional knowledge.
  3. The state legislative process provides an alternative to nationalized political debate.

When any of us posts a video online, we’re not just talking to our contemporaries, but people who might find our recording some day in the future. My hope is that most of the people who find this recording will have never known a time when the Nebraska Legislature didn’t offer a lot of transparency and access to state government. 

I’ll be very happy if LB777 succeeds in creating an online archive of legislative videos. But I still wouldn’t want future generations to forget how long it took Nebraska to do the right thing, because that fact contains a civics lesson in itself.

Update: Unfortunately, senators punted on passing LB777 in 2022, but the fight for transparent government isn’t over! Sign the petition to demand the Unicameral posts its meeting videos online for all to see.

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