Missouri Offers Online Legislative Debate

When Missouri's legislative session began recently, for the first time citizens could listen to live debates on the House and Senate World Wide Web sites.

"An important part of this is the immediacy and completeness of the information that's provided. If people see or hear something, they can immediately pick up the phone or e-mail their congressman," said Mark Hughes, director of communications for the Senate.

The system cost $35,000 and involved setting up a separate server from the one that handles the House and Senate Web sites. The spare wasn't necessary, but Hughes didn't want trouble with the live feeds to threaten the whole system, he said.

People can go to either the House or Senate Web site, download Real Networks Inc.'s RealPlayer for free, then tune into the debate.

The broadcasts debuted Jan. 3. On average, 70 to 100 people logged in at once, Hughes said. He expects that number to increase at the end of the session, when final decisions are about to be made.

The system can handle 1,000 people at a time.

Missouri is one of nine states that offer legislative broadcasts from their Web sites, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In six other states, private providers offer the service.

Missouri's legislative branch has dabbled with technology for years. About 10 years ago, after the state found that students were not proficient in civics and government, the state made a video about how a bill becomes a law and established a satellite feed to any school that cared to tune in. That led to a program where students videotaped questions for lawmakers, with elected officials responding with videos of their own.

By 1992, the state expanded the school programming to live programs for broadcast on public-access channels. And a year ago, Missouri.Net, a for-profit Internet company, began broadcasting live legislative audio.

"We felt, based on their success, it was time to add this as a free public information service of the legislature," Hughes said.

The Missouri Senate site can be found at www.senate.state.mo.us.

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