January 28, 2010

Advocates push for more on open government

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

Open government advocates are pushing for more General Assembly transparency, in the wake of this week’s decision to put legislative committee votes online.

The Maryland Open Government Act, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by more than half the delegates and senators, goes much further.

The bill requires all legislative hearings to be broadcast on the General Assembly’s website. Witnesses could sign up to testify on bills online, rather than in person two hours before a hearing as they now must do.

Committees would also have to revamp their hearing schedules, and publish the order in which bills will be heard one day in advance. Committees now use an unpredictable system, which allows leaders to shuffle bills during the course of a hearing.

The new push came as lawmakers resolved an earlier issue about the posting of committee voting records.

The Senate on Thursday formally adopted a rule proposed by Senate Republican Leader Allan Kittleman that committee votes on legislation be posted online “within 10 days.” But Senate President Mike Miller, a Democrat, said he would like to see them go up sooner than that, “as expeditiously as possible.”

House Speaker Michael Busch had already authorized the Department of Legislative Services to post committee votes before bills are brought to the House floor.

Leah Mack of Knoxville, Md., with her daughter Hope bouncing in her arms, described the hassles the public often endures when committee hearings run on for hours. She and other mothers who wanted to testify for a bill to allow the sale of raw milk waited a whole afternoon with screaming babies, eventually running out of food, diapers and patience. (See our video for more of her remarks.)

House leaders were already exploring Webcasting of hearings with the legislature’s information technology division.

In 2006, the new House office building opened with the streaming technology.

“We deliberately put in cameras so there would be greater public access,” said House Majority Leader Kumar Barve, co-chair of the legislature’s IT committee, but he acknowledged that “there are some kinks to be worked out.”

Michael Gaudiello, the legislature’s IT chief, said his crew is testing the broadcasting, and there are quality issues on the video stream. The higher resolution of the picture is, the more bandwidth it occupies on the Internet and the more it would cost to send out.

“It’s acceptable resolution balanced against bandwidth,” Guadiello said.

The bill would also require Webcasting of meetings by the Board of Public Works, the powerful three-member committee headed by the governor. The BPW approves more than $8 billion in state contracts each year.

The board also can approve state budget cuts when the Assembly is not in town. The panel has repeatedly cut more than $1 billion in the last two years, often with less than a day’s notice of the intended reductions. Such actions would have to be publicized two weeks in advance for public notice under the proposed legislation.

The Webcasting of board meetings is “certainly something the governor would be interested in exploring,” said Shaun Adamec, press secretary to Gov. Martin O’Malley. “But the governor is one equal vote on a three-person panel and doesn’t speak for nor control the board itself.”

Patrick Moran, director of AFSCME, the union representing 30,000 state employees, said the new law was necessary because of the “secrecy” of BPW budget deliberations, which he says have hurt his membership.

Del. Heather Mizeur, lead sponsor of the bill with 75 other members signed on, said the General Assembly was far more open than Congress; every bill gets a hearing at which anyone can sign up to testify.

“We need housekeeping not a clean sweep,” Mizeur said. “These changes are not a revolution, but an evolution.”

Sen. Nancy King, who leads the list of 31 senators backing the bill, said the General Assembly needs to catch up with improving technology.

The bills are backed by Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Progressive Maryland and other groups, the sponsors said.