Nicole Fox on Why Transparent Governments Post Hearings Online
Today, we’re talking about transparency in government and the need to post legislative debate and hearings online.
Nicole Fox, Director of Government Relations at The Platte Institute and a former Nebraska State Senator, shares her unique perspective of policy making from a variety of angles.
Currently, Nebraska Public Media live streams Unicameral floor debates and some hearings, but you must watch live to see the broadcast.
Nebraska is one of only a few states that does not archive video recordings online to make them available to view later.
Here at The Platte Institute, it’s part of Nicole’s job to follow legislation as it moves through the Unicameral. Keep reading to hear our discussion about why transparent governments need to post their meetings online.
You can also listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Jim: Nicole, how have you kept up with the hearing and floor debate that you can’t watch in person, or in real time, or on the live stream?
Nicole: Well, first of all, I’d like to say I’m actually really fortunate in my role at Platte because I can monitor most legislative activities in real time. But there are days where we may be interested in bills that are being heard simultaneously in two different committees, and I can only be in one committee and can’t monitor the other.
Additionally, there are times where I may be involved in meetings that take me away from hearing rooms or take me away from what’s going on in the legislative chamber.
So during those times, I rely on second hand information, and that second hand information may be colleagues at the Capitol, legislative staff or reaching out to senators after the fact.
It could be relying on media coverage, newspapers, articles or watching the evening news. It could be monitoring social media.
Basically, it’s the same avenues that hardworking Nebraskans rely on. People who are trying to run their businesses, take care of their families, or work their nine to five jobs.
Jim: So when you were serving as a state senator, how would having the videos archived online be beneficial to you and your constituents?
Nicole: Well, first I’d like to mention that currently there are transcripts available for legislative proceedings, but those transcripts are not always available in a timely manner.
When you are able to locate them, you have to go through dozens, sometimes hundreds of pages, just to find information on maybe that one bill that you’re looking for. And some people may like to read, some people prefer to obtain their information through a presentation. So, being able to watch a video would fit their needs better.
As a legislator, in a single session, you might be dealing with and weeding through 600 – 700 introduced bills. As a senator, you can’t know everything that’s going on in every committee.
So your primary focus are the bills that you’ve introduced yourself. Secondly, you might be focused on the bills that are in the committees in which you’re assigned.
Then of course, there’s always those major pieces of legislation. You know about it because the media is talking about it, and your colleagues are talking about it. But there’s still a lot of bills to go, and when they hit the floor there’s a lot of information that you have to be up to speed on.
So, if it’s an area that you’re not a subject matter expert in, you might be reliant on your colleagues, the lobby, and also those secondhand sources of information that I had mentioned earlier. For example, if you’re an urban senator and you don’t understand things that are going on in rural parts of the states.
We’re now in this era of term limits, so there is a lot of missing historical knowledge. As a senator, you may be faced with a floor debate on a bill that has a significant history.
It could be a bill that’s been introduced multiple times, but over the course of the introductions it has evolved because there’s been heavy opposition. So the bill introductions have changed to satisfy the opposition.
The other thing is that sometimes legislation gets passed, but then in the implementation process, it’s discovered that some things need to be fine tuned. So, second bills may need to be introduced to fine tune those.
Or, sometimes there are issues happening at the federal level where we have to, at the state level, update our rules and regulations and laws so that it fits with the federal scheme.
Jim: Nicole, at a fundamental level, why do you believe transparency in government is important for all of us here at Nebraska?
Nicole: Well, essentially, policymaking decisions occurring in our Unicameral are affecting hardworking Nebraskans every day. They are affecting those that are running businesses, and they’re affecting those that are taking care of our loved ones.
It’s important that Nebraskans have access to what goes into the policy decisions that are being made. Every single bill in our state that gets introduced gets a hearing. That means there’s a wealth of information at every public hearing.
There are opponents and supporters, and they’re coming in to testify as to why they support or oppose a bill. It’s important that the public has access to that information.
It’s also important that the public has access to how their senators are responding. So if there’s a committee hearing, they might be interested in the questions that their senators are raising, or just the committee in general.
I also think it’s important that the public has access to concerns raised during floor debate when a bill hits the floor. Constituents need access to why people are getting on the mic and speaking up either in support or opposition of a bill.
We do know all votes are recorded and you can access those on the legislature’s webpage. But the yays/nays and present/not voting of that bill, is not reflected in the record nor tell you why. It’s important for citizens to be informed and engaged. When you’ve got informed citizens, they’re more likely to engage with legislators.
As a former legislator, I felt like I had more clout when I was making policy decisions when I could say, “issue” affects one of my constituents, or it affects multiple constituents, and here’s why. It’s important that legislators get feedback from the people that put them in office.
Jim: All right, let’s go back to this last session in 2022. There was an effort to pass legislation requiring these videos to be archived, but it failed to progress. The bill was even prioritized. What were the main barriers to getting this bill across the finish line and heard on the legislative floor?
Nicole: Well, the good news is that we almost made it. The bill, LB777, would’ve created the archive. It was introduced by Senator Tom Brewer, and the bill did advance out of committee. It did receive a speaker priority from Speaker Hilgers.
Unfortunately, this past session was a short 60 day session, so we were limited on time. With everything going on with the ARPA funding debates and some major legislative proposals where it was very important that those bills get heard, we just ran out of time.
Jim: Well, it sounds like it wasn’t a policy issue, it was a matter of logistics and running out of time. Is that correct?
Jim: All right, let’s look forward. What would you like to see happen to make this level of access and government transparency available to Nebraskans?
Nicole: Well, I would like to see this bill get reintroduced next session. In fact, I anticipate that it will. I’ve had discussions with Senator Brewer and he is very much interested in bringing this bill forward again.
Because of the progress we made during the 2022 session, I do think that we’ll make significant progress in the 2023 session. The bill had no major opposition.
The clerk did testify at the hearing and raised a couple of concerns, but I think that those concerns can be addressed with a new bill. Also, I know that a lot of senators that will be returning in 2023 have reached out to me in support of this bill and they want to see this bill reintroduced.
I know here at Platte, we have had several people reach out to us thanking us for our support of this bill. Again, I’m hoping there will be another bill introduced in 2023. I’m optimistic for the next session that we’ll get the archive across the finish line.
Jim: Well, things sound promising for the future. Obviously, this is an important issue for tech fairs across the state, and transparency giving them access to information in the policy decisions happening in Lincoln.
Nicole, thank you for taking the time to talk about the importance of making the policy processes accessible for Nebraskans.
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