"Live from Capitol Hill, it's the Utah Legislature."
Yes, it was bound to be considered sooner or later - live or tape-delayed TV broadcasts of Utah lawmakers in action - holding hearings, giving floor speeches and making votes.While they won't be coming into your living rooms this general session, which starts Jan. 16, they may be in the near future.
Senate Minority Leader Scott Howell, D-Sandy, is filing a bill that would fund and require a certain number of hours of live or taped legislative action for most of the 45-day general sessions. He's even considering broadcasting selected meetings of the monthly interim legislative sessions, which usually take place the third Wednesday of each month April through December.
Americans can see Congress in action - or inaction - now through C-Span, a cable channel that covers a number of federal government hearings, press conferences, speeches and debates. Some people have become C-Span junkies, watching the live or taped broadcasts for hours a day. Most Americans, however, have probably never heard of it or rarely watch it.
But Howell believes C-Span has changed citizens' opinions and expectations of government. Just as congressmen's good and bad points have been exposed via television, Howell believes Utahns would get better laws and lawmakers if much, or even some, of the Utah Legislature's proceedings were televised.
Howell is talking to the public TV stations in Utah - KUED Channel 7 and KULC Channel 9 at the University of Utah and KBYU Channel 11 at Brigham Young University - and with the state's largest cable company, TCI Cablevision, about helping to broadcast legislative sessions.
"Years ago, long before my time, I'm told that Channel 7 televised parts of the Legislature," says Howell. "But they shot a lot of film - it was before videotape - and it cost a lot of money and didn't work very well."
Howell says modern technology now makes it easier and less expensive to tape parts of early legislative sessions and broadcast live the final night of each session, when many of the bills are passed.
"For the first three weeks of the session, I'd like to see an hour a night of what the Legislature did that day, maybe go up to two hours the final weeks and broadcast the final night live" until midnight, when lawmakers wrap up the 45-day session, Howell says.
"We spend $4 billion in the yearly state budget - that's a lot of money. We make laws that affect everyone's lives. Yet if you talk to someone on the street, he doesn't know who his House member is or what he's done; who his senator is or what he's done (during a session). I look on this (TV broadcasts) as getting citizens involved in their state government, involved in the decisions. I believe that's happened with C-Span" and Congress.
Howell doesn't want to spend a lot of money, however. "If we can do this for a small amount, that's great. But I don't want to spend $200,000." His high hope is that TCI Cable Vision will turn over a cable channel, that a public TV station will donate the manpower and equipment and live broadcasts can be done inexpensively.
"That's the best case scenario. At worst, it may cost too much and we can't do it at all," he says.
But wouldn't some legislators, seeing the little red light on the camera and knowing they're on live TV, get up and make long speeches?
"That's a juvenile approach. But if they do, then their constituents would see how silly they are. In fact, I really believe live coverage would make for more responsible debate. You should hear some of the crazy, just crazy, stuff that's said up here. As the minority party - almost the permanent minority party - it helps (Democrats) if people learned what the majority (Republicans) are doing and saying up here," said Howell.
Helen Lacy, general manager for KULC - the University of Utah's education channel - said it probably wouldn't be too difficult to televise legislative sessions. But how much it would cost is another matter. "Depending on how much editing or expert commentary or programming one wants, that's the cost," she said.
In any case, the 1995 session couldn't be televised at night "because we've already signed up students to take night TV classes (via Channel 9). We could only (broadcast legislative sessions) after midnight." But in future years, programming could be adjusted, she added.
Some production costs must come, otherwise lawmakers would really have to change their behavior. For example, unless live TV picked up people wandering around on the House and Senate floor or nearly empty hearing rooms, lawmakers would have to start floor sessions and committee meetings on time - which rarely if ever happens.
"I don't know how many people would watch" legislative coverage, says Howell. "But I want people to get more involved. They should see who says what and how they vote on taxes and other important issues. The major newspapers (like the Deseret News) give us maybe one story a day during the session; commercial TV even less. I think (live TV coverage) would result in better votes and better legislators - let the citizens see for themselves the good and bad things we do."