Much of the state legislature’s business during the upcoming five month session will be conducted remotely, which is already creating technical challenges.
Although the 2021 session of the Hawaii Legislature doesn’t officially convene until later this month, some committee meetings are already underway.
The first meeting of the new Committee on Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness started off like most legislative meetings, with Representative Linda Ichiyama taking a roll call of members and introducing the agenda.
Unlike usual committee meetings however, the pubic gallery was empty and representatives and speakers were not together. They instead communicated from various remote locations through Zoom.
When the COVID-19 pandemic descended on Hawaii in the middle of the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers committed to providing remote viewing options for all public hearings.
That required live streaming meetings over platforms like Facebook and YouTube, in addition to public access broadcaster ‘Olelo. The Wednesday meeting of the Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee was available for viewing on the House of Representative’s YouTube channel.
But as anyone who has been through a Zoom meeting over the past nine months knows, they do not always go smoothly.
Trouble began for the House pandemic committee around 30 minutes into the meeting.
As Aloha United Way President John Fink was presenting the final figures on the state’s rent relief program, his audio feed became garbled and unintelligible.
The video portion of the broadcast continued uninterrupted, and Fink went on to say that Hawaii had distributed more funds for rent relief on a per-capita basis than any other statewide program.
State Labor Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio did not fare much better during her presentation on issues facing the state’s unemployment insurance system. Ten seconds into her remarks, Perreira-Eustaquio became distorted and impossible to follow.
In both cases the YouTube live stream eventually returned to normal after several minutes, but made following the discussion impossible and led to significant portions of the discourse being lost to viewers.
It is unclear what caused the malfunction, but lack of internet bandwidth at the State Capitol was identified as an issue last year, when lawmakers first switched to remote work.
Upgrades were subsequently made to the Capitol’s information technology infrastructure over the summer to allow for more live streaming.
Remote legislating already proved a challenge for transparency in the 2020 session.
While more proceedings than ever were available for remote viewing, public input was restricted to written testimony.
Local government often led the way, with bodies like the Maui County Council and Honolulu City Council rolling out systems for the public to provide live testimony remotely.
Opening Day for the 2021 Legislative Session is January 20th.