Twice in recent weeks I’ve done something I’ve only dreamed about in the past: I’ve covered the North Dakota Legislature while wearing slippers.
Now, it’s not that I forgot to put on real shoes and then drove the hour to the state's capitol building in Bismarck (I won’t argue that’s something I wouldn’t do, just that I didn't this time.) Instead, I sat in my home office and watched first a legislative hearing and days later a session of the state Senate, and filed stories on some bills of importance to landowners and outdoors enthusiasts in the state.
The COVID-19 pandemic has screwed up a lot of things in the past year. But one thing that I appreciate immensely is how it has created accessibility to government.
The first time I covered state government was in 2006, when I interned for The Associated Press covering the South Dakota Legislature in Pierre. After that experience, I settled in North Dakota and have worked for news organizations where I’ve helped cover at least an issue or two every session each year (with the exception of one year) since 2007. During my four-plus years at Agweek, I’ve covered the North Dakota Legislature in person but have used technology to cover bills and hearings in Minnesota, Montana and South Dakota as well.
Prior to this year, covering a committee hearing at the North Dakota Legislature meant physically being in a committee room in Bismarck. And while being there has been my job as a reporter, it also has meant that citizens who want to know what is happening have to physically be in a committee room. That can create a situation where only people who can afford to take a day off of work and travel to their state capitol can participate in the lawmaking process. For farmers, ranchers, small business owners, school officials and many, many lower income workers, it’s been a near impossibility.
But thanks are in order, I guess, to COVID-19: Now, every committee hearing and floor session of the North Dakota Legislature, and other legislatures in the region, are being offered via some sort of video conference. That means, if you want to watch, you can do so, even with your fuzzy slippers on. Or, from a tractor or the calving barn or the closet in the store you run. You also can testify live during committee hearings or send in written testimony, if that’s your preferred medium. And if you don’t have anything to say on a bill but still want to see how the people elected to represent you are doing, you can do that, too, with just a click of a button.
I appreciate the ability to be able to cover an hour hearing without driving an hour there and back. More than likely, I’ll pop up to Bismarck at some point to cover something in person during the session, but this provides more opportunities for news organizations to do more with fewer resources.
But way more importantly, it opens up the government to the citizens in ways it never has been before. In the vast states in this region, anything that can bring people closer to the state government — whether physically or virtually — will help get people involved.
We’ve compiled some links and tips on state legislatures in the region at agweek.com. Find that here: How to participate in your state legislatureCheck out who your elected officials are, what bills are under consideration, when the hearings are and how you can watch or participate.
It’s time to get involved! Lawmakers want to hear from their constituents about issues that matter, and the constituents should want to make sure their voices are being heard. And now that’s easier than ever.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's content manager. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, N.D., with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.