Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Pass the Legislative Voting Sunshine Act (Update)

“What happens in Annapolis stays in Annapolis.” Such is the custom for much of what goes on in the General Assembly’s committees, which perform a great deal of the work of the legislative branch. But Delegate Saqib Ali (D-39) wants to change that with a bill calling for the posting of committee votes on the Internet. We wholeheartedly agree.

Nearly all legislative work starts in one of the General Assembly’s standing committees, each of which has jurisdiction over certain categories of issues affecting the state government, its economy and its residents. Individual legislators draft bills and sometimes seek co-sponsors for them, after which they are assigned to one of the committees. The committees review the bills, hold hearings, consider amendments and may hold votes, after which the bills head to the floor and then on to the other chamber. Differing versions of bills must be reconciled by the two chambers. If the same legislation passes both the House and the Senate, it is eligible for the Governor’s signature. In the VAST majority of cases, no bill gets to the Governor’s desk without first passing through committee.

We have written before about many of these committees’ tendency to deliberate in secret. That practice is bad enough. Just as bad is the fact that committee votes are not posted on the General Assembly’s website. They are only available on written tally sheets that must be physically picked up by visitors to the statehouse. And so legislators, staffers, lobbyists and insiders can obtain them easily but members of the public must expend significant effort to lay hands on them. It is yet another way that those in power can avoid scrutiny of their actions.

Delegate Ali wants committee votes to be available online for all to see. His Legislative Voting Sunshine Act states:

(A) The result of a roll call vote taken on a bill, an amendment to a bill, or any other motion relating to a bill in a standing committee shall be made available on the General Assembly website at the same time that the report of the standing committee on the bill is made available on the website.

(B) The result of the roll call vote posted under Subsection (A) of this section shall indicate:

(1) How each member of the standing committee voted on a bill, an amendment to a bill, or any other motion relating to a bill; and

(2) Which members made the motion and seconded the motion.
Ali’s bill will meet resistance. When we began posting committee vote sheets last spring, some legislators called your author to express dismay. (Perhaps they do not understand that such calls only encourage us to dig further.) Adding to the nervousness of Annapolis was the fact that Nancy Navarro’s negative mailers against Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19) were partly based on his committee votes. That hints at a common perception in Annapolis: some legislators may vote differently in committee than they do on the floor because they believe the public is less likely to find out about committee action. Ali’s bill would end all of that.

Here is a question for the state legislators: if floor votes are online, why should committee votes not be? What makes them less deserving of the eyes of the public?

The flamboyant Ali may not be the ideal sponsor of this bill. His colleagues may be tempted to vote against it simply out of resentment of his extraordinary press-hogging talents. They better not. Because if this bill dies in committee, your author will be sure to post the tally sheet. No bunker will be deep enough to conceal the enemies of open government.

Update: Brian Griffiths, the leading conservative blogger in Maryland, has also written in support of the bill.

Update 2: The Post now supports the bill.