Capitol Campus on Monday

U.S. Army National Guardsmen and members of the Washington State Patrol stand within a fence erected outside of the Washington State Capitol building last week in Olympia. 

This might be the most accessible Legislative session in history, thanks to online tools provided by the state.

McKenna Troje, 22, a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, participated in a one-person experiment last weekend to see how difficult registering to testify remotely on a bill would be during this year’s state legislative session, which launched Monday and will be run mostly online in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 public health guidelines.

“That was pretty easy,” Troje said.

Troje hasn’t attended a committee hearing before nor has she ever visited the state Legislature’s leg.wa.gov website.

So she started by Googling how to testify on Washington legislation, and the first result took her to a page on the Legislature’s website that provides detailed instructions on what to do before, during, and after testimony, as well as what participants can expect when joining online.

Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland, said that a bonus to this year’s remote session might be that a larger number of residents from all over the state will participate in the lawmaking process.

“It (remote testimony) has enabled us to enhance openness, access and transparency,” Kloba said. “Not only will this make participation more equitable for those who cannot take a day off of work but also for Washingtonians who live farther from Olympia.”

Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have been highly critical of the virtual legislative session, noting that that inability to attend hearings in person reduces the public’s ability to have an impact on the process.

Lawmakers at a press event on Thursday said they’ve been holding practice sessions for weeks on how best to conduct routine legislative activity online, working out kinks and establishing best practices in running committee hearings and floor debates and votes in the House and Senate. 

Sen. Joe Nguyen, D-White Center, celebrated opportunities the online session might provide.

“You can see, live, exactly what’s happening at all times,” Nguyen said, pointing to the live TVW broadcast that will stream on cable and online.

If you can watch YouTube, he said, you can watch — and participate in — the legislative session.

It’s unclear, however, how much commonplace but unofficial legislative activity might play out, including the quiet exchanges and sidetalk among lawmakers that can shift a vote or the way lobbyists in hushed hallway conversations make their cases. Those kinds of interactions may well become even less visible to the public this year.

Amongst the difficulties that come with an online session, lawmakers will still be debating across the aisle with contentious issues like COVID-19 relief, affordable housing and reforming the governor’s emergency powers.

More information on how to provide testimony or just watch hearings can be found at https://leg.wa.gov/legislature/Pages/Testify.aspx.

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