The Washington and Idaho legislatures are right in the thick of their 2021 sessions. Idaho lawmakers expect to finish by March 26. Washington’s session is scheduled to end on April 25.
Even during sessions held during a pandemic, people who can’t travel to Olympia or Boise can keep an eye on what their elected representatives are doing. In Idaho, most of the proceedings are viewable online through Idaho Public Television. In Washington, coverage is provided by TVW.
“We are a creation of the legislature but we are not a state agency," said Renee Radcliff Sinclair, president of TVW.
"TVW is a private, non-profit organization. We have a contract with the state to provide gavel-to-gavel coverage all three branches of government and by gavel-to-gavel, I mean that, when a gavel bangs to start a meeting to the time that the gavel bangs to end that meeting, we do not edit, we don’t filter, we don’t provide any editorial comment. Viewers are hearing directly from lawmakers, whether they’re in the court or the legislature or state agency boards and commissions. They’re hearing directly from the decision makers as those meetings are progressing," she said.
TVW debuted on cable television systems in Washington in April 1995. It’s on channel 25 on the Comcast system in Spokane. It also has a significant presence online.
“TVW has really become institutionalized over the course of the last 26 years. Not only are people watching on television, but I hear from people all the time who have one thing on on television and they’re watching something else on their computer screen because everything that is happening with the legislative process is streamed and archived.
“TVW is one of a network of about 20 states that have cable television stations that are independently managed from state government. All other states have some sort of streaming service that is managed by state governments. As an example, the state of California manages their own system. The legislature manages their system and they work from eight-to-five. As you know, a lot of things happen after five o’clock in the legislature. Sometimes budget debates on the House or Senate floor will run all night and TVW is always there. If the legislature is meeting, if the Supreme Court is meeting, if we’re in the midst of a pandemic and the governor is having a press conference, our cameras are on," Sinclair said.
There are places where the cameras aren’t on, for example, caucus meetings where Democrats and Republicans decide which legislation to move forward and which to hold. Sinclair says there’s one new committee in each chamber now getting airtime, the Rules Committees, where some of those decisions about advancing legislation is made.
“We have cameras installed in every room, except for the Rules room in both the House and the Senate. This year, Senator Billig, from your part of the world, started saying that because of the nature of all meetings that we would be able to cover Rules meetings this year. No one had spoken to us about that but we were thrilled to hear that we were going to be able to cover Rules meetings because that was one place, in addition to the caucus meetings, where we had not been allowed previously and I have to say, having sat through a lot of those meetings, they’re not the most interesting. There’s not a lot of policy discussion there, but it’s nice to be able to provide that information to the public because they’re interested in what’s happening. For the first time, it’s been fun to be able to do that," she said.
Sinclair says TVW has become more popular during the pandemic, gaining viewers during the governor’s periodic Covid-related press conferences.
“People access our content from all around the world and when things are happening here that are of interest and significance to the entire world, our television footage runs on commercial television stations all around the world. I never thought we would see numbers again like we did during the summer with the governor’s press conferences, but because TVW is the only way you can access the work of the legislature this year, we’re even eclipsing what we saw last summer, so it’s been a very big year for us," she said.