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Changes due to virus give public better view of Legislature

January 4, 2021 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s efforts to make its legislative session safer during the coronavirus pandemic should also make it easier for citizens to observe the proceedings and participate in government, leaders and longtime observers say.

Legislative leaders have spent more than $2.6 million in federal COVID-19 relief money to beef up live streaming and remote technology to allow people to watch committee meetings and floor sessions in real time. The public will be able to give remote testimony and not have to worry about driving to Bismarck in the middle of winter.

“They will be able to follow certain issues that they’re interested in from the committee room to the chamber, and if it passes and goes to the next chamber, they’ll know everything that’s said, everything that’s done,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, who spearheaded the upgrades.

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House and Senate floor sessions have been livestreamed, archived and indexed online since 2013, The Bismarck Tribune reported. But much of the action, including hearings on bills, takes place in committee meetings, North Dakota Newspaper Association attorney Jack McDonald said.

“Everybody knows that the real arguments for and against a bill are made in committee hearings, and if you were interested, you had to be there, literally,” he said. “But now ... you can follow it from Fargo or Grand Forks or Hettinger or Dickinson or wherever.”

The one downside, McDonald said, could be a lack of spontaneity that often inspires people to speak.

“I think overall it’s a better deal, I really do,” McDonald said. “It’s just that you have to learn to work the system.”

People who do choose to attend in person will be required to wear proper face masks or shields, as is the case with lawmakers and others participating in the session, which kicks off Tuesday.