Legislative Site Gains Features, Loses Recording

January 31, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveA funny thing happened on the way to the S.C. General Assembly’s website getting redesigned between the end of the 2010 legislative session and the beginning of this year’s session earlier this month.

Two significant additions were made to the site, scstatehouse.gov, in the off-session. The upgrades provide greater transparency to the Legislature’s business and make the site more user friendly.

In the process of the redesign, however, a function previously available on the portal was removed, reducing legislative transparency.

“The two major changes to our website are the roll call vote functions and the publishing of amendments,” Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett, who oversaw the revamp, said in an e-mail to The Nerve.

The deleted function: the ability to record live Internet streaming of the House and Senate when the chambers are in session.

The recording capability was convenient for voters, taxpayers and other interested parties to keep up with the Legislature if they would otherwise miss the live session because of work, school or other commitments.

The feature also provided a built-in mechanism to document legislators’ deliberations and truth squad them at a later date.

Lauded by Senate leaders, the additions to the site make it much easier for people to monitor how their legislators vote and how lawmakers carry on the sometimes byzantine amendment process.

“Mister chairman, it’s my understanding that the clerk has done a tremendous amount of work on our website, and it’s going to be very user friendly for the public,” Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, said in a recent Senate Rules Committee meeting.

Later repeating the description of user friendly, McConnell said the public can now search the site by roll call vote and in other ways.

Gossett elaborated in his e-mail.

“If you explore the website you can see the many different areas and ways that roll call votes can now be easily found,” Gossett said. “There is also an area that lists every amendment that is proposed in the Senate and House.

Previously, the only way to find this information would be to read the daily House and Senate Journals.”

The Journals separately document each chamber’s business, such as votes, appointments, introductions of bills and statements by lawmakers.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, chairs the Senate Rules Committee. “It’s pretty neat,” Martin said of the site redesign during the recent meeting of his committee, “and that’s going to be a real good tool for the public to follow us without having to dig down into the Journal.”

With regard to recording the House and Senate in session, Gossett said that function was removed as part of some changes to a video streaming page on the site.

“As you can now see, the page allows users to view additional information in the same window with the video; the calendar, amendments, etc.,” Gossett said. “In order to make this function possible, we switched to an Adobe Flash format. I believe this is a fairly standard Internet video format. However, it did result in the loss of the recording feature in RealPlayer that was used in the past.”

So, the obvious question is, will the recording mechanism be returned?

Gossett did not say, specifically, but left open the possibility that it might.

“Since the start of session, we have made many adjustments to these systems and will continue to do so as we find areas that can be improved or the technology changes to make the work done by the General Assembly as easy to follow as possible,” Gossett said.

The Nerve also inquired with House Clerk Charles Reid about the redesign, which included a makeover of legislators’ biography pages. “Jeff’s response is accurate and complete,” Reid said in an e-mail. “There is nothing more that I could add.”

South Carolina Educational Television, one of a few things Gov. Nikki Haley has suggested the state defund to help cover a projected $800 million-plus state budget deficit, provides audio and video signal for live streaming the session.

“And that’s about the amount of our involvement,” says Ed Goodwin, ETV’s steaming media specialist. Goodwin says ETV equipment transmits the signal. “But we don’t actually do the live streaming.”

Rather, Legislative Printing Services handles that task.

As for software that might allow for recording the live streaming, The Nerve’s in-house information technology expert, Chip Oglesby, advises that he did some checking and found that there are few if any workable options.

Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or eric@thenerve.org.