Majority Republican state senators see recent meetings of minority Democrats as “pretend hearings” and want changes in how they are broadcast.
Caught in the middle is TVW, the public-affairs television station that captures the actions of the Legislature for TV and Web audiences and posterity.
At issue: two meetings this year, one on retirement savings, the other on insurance coverage for abortion. They looked similar to hearings, with lawmakers sitting at a dais in either a House or Senate hearing room listening to testimony, but all the lawmakers were Democrats and the presenters shared similar views with each other.
“They were pretend hearings, and TVW carried them with the credibility of a hearing,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said Thursday night in a meeting of the Senate’s administrative committee. “There have been member concerns that TVW televising non-committee hearings as committee hearings is not an appropriate use of TVW or the Legislature.”
TVW televised the retirement meeting led by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, but filmed the one on a proposed requirement for insurers to cover abortion for Web only.
Republicans suggested the meetings should be billed as press conferences or something else.
Senate Democratic Leader Sharon Nelson said senators should be able to use hearing rooms for briefings and TVW should be able to choose to air them – just as it airs events outside the Legislature put on by groups as disparate as a conservative think tank and organized labor.
“Does that mean that if we request a hearing on legislation that we believe is important to the public, there will be that hearing?” Nelson, D-Maury Island, replied to complaints at the meeting Thursday. “Because if not, then we are censoring.”
She said Republicans wouldn’t allow a hearing on the abortion measure. Health Care Committee Chairwoman Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, did allow a hearing on the issue in 2013 but it did not receive a hearing in the 2014 session.
TVW receives funding from the Legislature but is a separate nonprofit run by an independent board. Among other programming, it produces gavel-to-gavel coverage of legislative proceedings under a state contract.
After receiving complaints from the Senate, TVW interim president Mike Bay said the station made some changes to graphics on the retirement broadcast, and it asked the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee to consider the issue.
“I’m actually glad they took it up because I think they need to have that conversation,” Bay said. “It’s a decision that I think is best made there (in the Legislature), with an agreement between the caucuses on how they want to use their facilities.”
No decision was made in the committee Thursday, but its chairman, Sen. Don Benton, wants a change. “Are they (TVW) going to adjust their policy or do we need to direct our staff to adjust our policy?” asked Benton, R-Vancouver. “If they don’t deal with it, then we need to deal with it.”