Columns » Jay Barth

It's camera time, state Senate

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Some key moments in my early education about Arkansas politics came from sitting in the gallery of the state Senate. During my college years, I'd come to Little Rock to watch an afternoon session of the Senate and see the leaders of that body — Max Howell and Knox Nelson — masterfully marionette their colleagues using a combination of procedural expertise and personal cajolery. While the personalities and theatrics of the state Senate today are perhaps not as colorful as in that era, watching the Senate's action live remains fascinating, particularly on days when there are close votes on important topics.

As much as Arkansans should take the opportunity to come to the cramped galleries on the top floor of the state Capitol to watch their senators at work, it's simply not feasible for hundreds of thousands of them significantly affected by some of the votes cast there. But because the presence of cameras in the Senate chamber and committee rooms has been fervently resisted, as this publication has noted across the years, Arkansans are unable to see their elected officials at work.

The Senate's recalcitrance to basic transparency is particularly frustrating now because in the coming weeks, the body will be casting a close vote on one of the most important public policy decisions in the state during the past decade — reappropriation of funding for the public option. It's an important moment for determining whether the pragmatic, bipartisan innovation will survive or be undermined in a system where a small minority has veto power. Moreover, the actions in Arkansas have ramifications beyond the state's borders. Increasingly, the Arkansas experiment is seen as a path towards expansion of access to health coverage in states that have resisted expansion so far, including the megastates of Texas and Florida. Now the decisions of a handful of Arkansas Republicans may help shape the future of health policy across the country. The debate and votes on this key measure, however, will not be broadcast.

The absence of cameras in the Senate contrasts with the full embrace of video technology by the legislative chamber at the other end of the Capitol's third floor. Indeed, the House of Representatives just made a major upgrade to that technology this week to allow the streaming of the work on the floor of the House and in committees on a variety of devices. Other state boards and commissions stream their proceedings and then archive the tapes for later viewing. One can also watch oral arguments in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Across the state, city council meetings are broadcast on community access channels, allowing constituents to watch what is often highly entertaining and insightful democracy at the grassroots level.

Yet even as video technology becomes cheaper and more omnipresent, the Arkansas state Senate continues to resist this basic measure of openness, with many members claiming that placement of cameras in the chambers would entice members to show off for the cameras rather than soberly doing the people's business. Let's not be naive — much of the deal-making that drives decisions in the state Senate will always take place in the hallways and conference rooms of the Capitol, or in the buzz of the Capital Hotel Bar and Grill. But, the state's citizens should have the opportunity to watch live, via video, the debates and public actions of their state officials, and then the video should be preserved as a record of what happens in those sessions.

If you want to have the opportunity to watch the state Senate make decisions on the crucial issue of public option and many smaller matters in the years ahead, I'd urge you to call or email Senate President Michael Lamoureux. I hear he has plenty of staff to answer the phones these days.

Or call your state senator and let her or him know you want full access to the workings of this chamber from wherever you may find a good wireless connection. It's simply time.

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