WOSTER: View from legislative press box different than in 1970
The South Dakota Legislature opened its annual session on Tuesday. That's exactly the same as in 1970, the first year I witnessed lawmaking from the press box in the House chamber.
Well, not exactly the same. In 1970, the television cameras were way bigger. However, South Dakota Public Broadcasting wasn't going live from either chamber. Reporters all had pocket-sized spiral notebooks instead of laptop computers or smart phones and carried 35-millimeter cameras with extra rolls of black-and-white film, instead of digital cameras or, well, smart phones.
The only phones in evidence in the House chamber in 1970 were on the desk in the press box. One belonged to the Associated Press, the other to United Press International.
An identical pair of black, rotary-dial phones sat on the desk in the press box of the Senate chamber. Both sets were connected to the outside world and, with a flick of a toggle switch on the side of the base, to the AP or UPI bureau on the fourth floor in the Capitol.
Wire-service reporters heading down the stairs from the bureaus had to flip a switch before they walked out the door to activate the press-box phones, a precaution, I suppose, against an unauthorized soul running up serious long-distance charges. It was a pain, because I forgot to flip the switch half the time, so I'd have to run back up the stairs in the middle of a debate, just in case I needed to phone in a bulletin from the House action or something.
The wire service reporters sat in the press boxes from start to finish of every afternoon's floor sessions. The first couple of years I covered the Legislature -- and for a long time before that, I was told by the oldtimers back in 1970 -- it was hit or miss whether a reporter could get a story from a committee hearing.
Sometimes the committees met on, well, short notice or no (public) notice. It didn't happen as often as legislative folklore would have it, but it did happen. A chairman might call a meeting on the spur of the moment to handle a particular bill and not tell anyone outside of the committee members.
Sometimes -- and I only saw it a time or two -- the chairman wouldn't even tell every committee member, if he didn't want one or two troublemakers to upset the flow of the action on a bill he wanted dead.
That kept reporters, lobbyists and citizens alike on their toes. I've heard a story from several different sources about a lobbyist who found out by accident that a committee was voting on one of the major bills he was shepherding. The lobbyist hurried to the committee room to find his bill had just been killed. As the story goes, the chairman reported the action to the lobbyist with an unseemly amount of glee.
Most times, committees would let citizens watch the discussion of bills. Not infrequently, once the discussion ended, the room would be cleared before the committee voted. A citizen interested in the outcome of the bill could hang around and ask a committee member, the chairman or the committee's staff member. Or that citizen could wait until the committee report on that bill showed up on the calendar of the House or Senate or in the daily journal that arrived the next morning. That's how reporters learned of many actions, and that's why reporters sat in the press box every minute the legislators were on the floor.
Over the years, the rules and procedures were changed so that every bill gets a hearing in a committee, every hearing is posted publicly in advance, most committee and floor debates are captured on audio and archived for later, bill actions are reported, with roll calls, amendments and other items of public-record interest. Reporters can file stories from the press boxes -- or anywhere else in the building if they wish -- with a laptop, tablet, iPad or, yes, a smart phone.
I suppose a reporter would never have to even open the press-box door. I don't think I'd like working that way. The real enjoyment of covering the Legislature was watching the people, not just the bills.