February 10, 2010

Montana v. Maryland: Aside from the wind and snow, how do the legislatures compare?

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By Natalie Neumann
Natalie@MarylandReporter.com

I woke Tuesday morning and thought I was in my home state of Montana. The wind and snow made me flashback to last year at this time when I was reporting on the Montana state legislature.

It’s a place where party caucus meetings are public, floor sessions can be watched live online and floor votes are a mouse click away. When I started covering the State House in Maryland I knew things would be different, but I didn’t expect it to be this different.

The first difference is easy to spot: more lawmakers and more people. Montana is 12 times the size of Maryland, but with one-sixth the population. Montana has 6 people per square mile, Maryland has 542.

Maryland has 188 lawmakers, while Montana has 150. Using 2009 U.S. Census estimates each Maryland senator represents an average of 121,265 people and each delegate in a single-member district, 40,422 people. That’s compared to an average of 19,500 people for each Montana senator and 9,750 people for each representative.

I knew my new home-base was more Democratic, so there was no surprise there. Half the legislators in Montana are Republicans — an even 50-50 split in the House and a majority of 27 in the Senate. In Maryland, barely a quarter of the House and less than a third of the Senate are members of the GOP.

It’s a bit easier to tell who’s a lawmaker in Montana than Maryland. Each wears a name tag in the shape of Montana on their lapel with their name, title and district. If you’re in the Montana capitol building and a person is wearing jeans, they’re probably not a legislator, but that’s not always true. Maryland’s unofficial dress code for guest, lobbyist or legislator is a more formal.

The biggest difference I’ve seen in the two states is in access to information. Party caucus meetings in Montana are public. However, they are run more like press conferences than meetings to discuss issues. Veteran legislators remember caucuses to be very different before 1999 when news organizations filed suit to open them up. Before then, lawmakers were rumored to pressure others to vote certain ways on bills and threatened to remove them from committee assignments or find someone to replace them in the next election.

Citizen participation is more regulated in Maryland. If a person wants to speak on a bill they must sign in before noon. In Montana, proponents, opponents and experts are asked to sign in but don’t have a deadline to do so. They can arrive when the committee is set to meet and sign in then, rather than waiting for hours before a committee meets after the noon deadline in Maryland. Bill sponsors and other speakers aren’t restricted to any time limits but committee chairs will set time limits on hearings if there’s a crowd of people. Last year, hearings on the death penalty and abortion bills lasted more than four hours in Montana. I hear the same thing is true in Maryland.

Maryland’s legislature hasn’t fully gotten on board the online bandwagon compared to the Big Sky state. Floor sessions, committee bill hearings and voting sessions are all streamed live and archived in Montana. If a committee room is packed, chances are you can watch the proceeding on a television outside the room.

If reporters are waiting for a bill they’re covering to come up they can listen on their computers with free Internet service provided in the capitol building and go to the meeting when the bill hearing is starting. Floor votes are posted online almost immediately. Action on bills is constantly updated online and floor agendas can be accessed online for free.

Both states have committee meeting hearings posted online. Montana’s committee vote counts are also posted online, and that has just happened in Maryland.

But Maryland’s website is clunky. Montana’s legislative website looks more modern and compiles some information better than Maryland’s. I find it easier to Google a Maryland lawmaker’s name than to find them from the legislative website. The site could take note of the Montana site and list how to find a legislator by name, zip code, or district. The Maryland site should make it easier to find all the bills from the same sponsor. In Montana, they’re listed with the legislator’s bios, not a separate search function.

I may be comparing apples to oranges on access in the two states. Perhaps all the snow is making me feel homesick, but Maryland reporters, legislators and citizens could all benefit from a little Big Sky openness.