CASPER — The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council decided Friday to require all meetings during the interim legislative session to take place at one of 22 pre-approved meeting locations. This means that remote participation for the public will be available for all joint interim committee meetings.
The pre-approved locations are limited to more populous areas of the state, however, and fail to cover some more rural areas of Wyoming.
All meetings will also allow for a limited number of in-person participants, but the options are less flexible for the committee members. If committee members want to participate remotely, they’ll need permission from the chairman of the committee.
The 2020 interim session — the period between formal legislative sessions that take place at the start of each year — was held almost completely online, as was much of the 2021 legislative session.
Although some committees have been streaming their meetings for a number of years, remote participation is still new.
Before 2020, there was almost zero remote participation allowed at interim committee meetings. Allowing remote participation, for lawmakers and for citizens, brings its own set of opportunities and drawbacks.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said it increases transparency and allows more people — including those from far corners of the state — to participate easily.
But tuning in and making comments over video rather than sitting in the same room as legislators may lead to angrier and less constructive input.
“In my opinion, making eye contact is important,” Rothfuss said. “Being able to have follow-up conversations in the hall, learning through outside questioning, those are the kinds of things that really enrich the experience and learning we get from public participation.”
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said he’d noticed the tone of participants changing during this year’s session. Before, those wanting to give input had to come sit across from those they were trying to influence and were able to participate even while a committee worked and tweaked bills.
Hot-button topics during the most recent session, including marijuana legalization and Medicaid expansion, saw a flood of people wanting to give their 2 cents by video. That meant most of them were only allowed to speak for two or three minutes, and the input ended up more like a stream of short speeches than a chance for lawmakers to talk and collaborate with constituents.
“Now we’re facing 100 people calling in to give the same testimony,” Case said. “And I’m thinking, what is this accomplishing?”
Streaming also makes legislators vulnerable to the whims — and the permanence — of the internet.
A Twitter account dubbed “Best of Wyo Legislature” pulled clips from committee meetings and floor sessions off YouTube and posted them as captioned videos, mostly poking fun at lawmakers.
But some of the videos can take comments out of context and misconstrue their meaning, said Rothfuss. (The senator, who chairs the Blockchain committee, was himself the subject of a video of Sen. Jim Anderson, R-Casper, calling him the “Digital Man.”)
“It’s accountability, but at the same time I think it kills speech,” Rothfuss said. “When you don’t have everything streamed … you can brainstorm, you can throw out ideas that might not be good. When you can’t do that anymore, you get worse policy.”
Case said the archive formed by streaming meetings, which lives on the internet forever, also has the potential to become campaign material for lawmakers and ammunition against their opponents.