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Federal aid boosts North Dakota Legislature's livestreaming plans

Federal aid boosts North Dakota Legislature's livestreaming plans

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State Sen. Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, left, is chairman of the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee. Rep. Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, is vice chairman.

North Dakota legislative leaders have moved to ramp up livestreaming and remote capabilities of meetings amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a 6-1 vote on Monday, the Legislative Procedure and Arrangements Committee approved using up to $750,000 in federal coronavirus aid to outfit 14 committee rooms with equipment for livestreaming and remote participation and to upgrade the House and Senate chambers, where floor sessions are broadcasted and then archived and indexed online.

Installation could begin in June, for the rooms and chambers to be ready by October. The 2021 Legislature convenes in January after its December organizational session.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who chairs the committee comprising Republican and Democratic-NPL floor leaders, said the pandemic has sped up the Legislature's transition to livestreaming meetings.

"It's a new day," he told the Tribune. "I'll tell you, you can sit back and smoke cigars and watch the hearings."

In December the committee approved a livestreaming pilot project for two rooms used by the Legislature's interim committees. The committee in March held off on expanding the livestreaming to review it further in September and due to costs.

North Dakota legislative leaders approve livestreaming pilot project
North Dakota legislative leaders to review livestreaming before potentially expanding
North Dakota legislative committees likely won't meet again until June

Due to the pandemic, interim committees have met via teleconference livestreamed from the Senate chamber. Some committees might return to in-person attendance in June. 

Pilot costs so far have been about $100,000. Since installation, Legislative Council Information Technology Manager Kyle Forster said the two rooms' technology has been reconfigured to allow remote participation amid the pandemic.

"Basically we want to be able to use these rooms so we can have a combination of both staff or legislators in the room and some be online remote, but be able to still livestream that meeting to the public with video," Forster said. Testing of the two rooms' capabilities is underway. The rooms are set to be ready for meetings next month.

Republican majority leaders say the Legislature should be prepared for remote means of meeting, if needed before January. No special session has so far been called, but lawmakers and budget officials are closely watching state revenues, especially sales taxes.  

North Dakota state revenues see some 'good news' amid pandemic

"This is to be ready. This is just to be prepared," said Wardner, who added that the 2021 Legislature is planned to meet in person.

"However, the way things are going, we don't know what could happen, and so we're just being prepared, and if some unforeseen thing comes along, we are able to still do business," he said.

Audiences of recent legislative committee livestreams have ranged from 85 to 248 live viewers online, Forster said.

House Majority Leader Chet Pollert, R-Carrington, who in past meetings has cautioned expanding livestreaming due to costs, said the statistics are "good to hear" amid the pandemic, and he's curious what viewership might be when normalcy resumes. 

"But we've got to have a backup plan in case that doesn't happen, and that's why we did what we did today," Pollert said.

Six interim committee meetings are set for June, with links to a livestream available for most of them.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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