March 1, 2010

BPW records meetings online, but other measures prove costly

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By Len Lazarick
Len@MarylandReporter.com

The Board of Public Works, which approves billions in state contracts each year, has begun posting audio of its long hearings online, but live Webcasts of its proceedings as proposed in a House bill may be a long-time coming because of a high price tag.

The BPW’s change is one of several transparency measures working their way through different levels of state government this year, and comes as the General Assembly considers its own changes.

The House Rules Committee on Monday heard testimony on several bills to open up government processes in Annapolis, allowing people to view hearings, votes and amendments over the Internet in real time.

The most far ranging, the Maryland Open Government Act with 76 cosponsors in the House, would also require live Webcasts of the Board of Public Works. But that would cost at least $110,000 to set up and $50,000 a year to operate.

House Speaker Michael Busch has already committed to webcasting committee hearings next year, his communications director Alexandra Hughes said.

The newer House hearing rooms are already set up for video, but the Senate now only has audio wired through its own office buildings. It would cost at least $150,000 to set up cameras, computer servers and software for the Senate.

Del. Heather Mizeur, lead sponsor of the bill, is proposing to raise the lobbyist registration fees from $100 to $250 a year to cover the additional costs. The bill as introduced raised the fees to $145 a year.

“This bill could be a revenue generator,” Mizeur said.

The bill also seeks to put all legislative action online in real time, access that is now only available in the State House complex or to remote subscribers who pay $800 a year. The legislation eliminates the subscriptions that currently generate $105,000, largely paid by lobbying firms and businesses.

The bill also requires that the public be given two weeks notice of any budget cuts that are proposed to the Board of Public Works.

The three-member board includes the governor as chairman, the state treasurer and state comptroller. Besides approving contracts and bond sales, the board is also authorized to cut the budget by as much as 25 percent without the legislature’s approval. Such cuts were made nine times by the board in the last two years, reducing spending by almost $1 billion from what the General Assembly had approved.

Sue Esty of AFSCME Maryland, the union representing 30,000 state workers, supports the bill, particularly the provisions on BPW budget actions.

Esty said the latest round of cuts proposed closing the mental hospital in Chestertown. “We found out the night before that a vote was going to be taken,” she said.

Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s press secretary, said he didn’t think the governor had reviewed the bill, and likely would not make a decision “until the legislature puts it on our desk.”

“The governor makes every attempt to put out the budget cuts as far in advance as possible,” Adamec said. But that is not possible for some of them.

Sheila McDonald, executive secretary of the board, said the BPW members “do want it to be known as open and transparent.”

But she noted that Treasurer Nancy Kopp had pointed to the comments of the bond rating agencies about “the nimbleness of the Board of Public Works” in making cuts to rebalance the budget.

“We need to have the ability to react,” McDonald said. “The bond houses like this.”

But McDonald said, “The Board of Public Works does not take any position” on this bill or others “because it does whatever the General Assembly tells it to do.”

The newly posted audio of board meetings came about after the court reporters that record and transcribe the meetings switched to a digital system, from a much older system using cassette tapes.

Recordings of the meetings are now online as MP3 files posted several days after the meeting. But they are not particularly easy to find, and McDonald hopes the comptroller’s office, which maintains the site, can improve on that.

Mizeur’s bill is supported by a number of groups including Common Cause, Maryland Public Interest Research Group, the League of Conservation Voters, Progressive Maryland, and the Maryland Association of Nonprofits.

Marjorie Slater-Kaplan of the League of Women Voters said the proposals “were something we had been working on for a number of years administratively” without success.