In Maryland legislature, lawmakers keep committee votes hidden

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WOULDN'T IT be ironic if legislation requiring Maryland lawmakers to make their committee votes available online were to die in a committee vote . . . which itself was never made available online? Ironic, yes, but all too likely given the fondness in Annapolis for the ways of yesteryear.

While floor votes in the state's General Assembly are posted on the legislature's site, committee votes -- where much of the real action takes place -- are generally recorded by hand by clerks. Citizens who'd like to know how their elected representatives cast their ballots in committee must make an appointment to request the information face-to-face in Annapolis, and hope the clerk in question (a) recorded the vote correctly, and (b) is in a sharing mood that day. It's not convenient to get to Annapolis during business hours? Too bad. In other words, when it comes to accountability for the Maryland General Assembly, welcome to the quill-and-inkwell days of the 19th century.

The legislature's love affair with opacity enables the usual mischief that public officials get up to when they can be reasonably certain no one's watching. A lawmaker may vote for a bill in committee -- to help advance the interests of a powerful business lobby, for instance -- then vote against it on the floor to project the image of maverick champion of the little guy. Come election time, your representative may tout only the floor vote, secure that the committee vote won't likely see the light of day.

Legislation to correct this by posting committee votes online will be introduced in the legislative session that starts next month. Montgomery County's delegation in Annapolis is already moving in the direction of voluntarily posting their own committee votes online. Amazingly, House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, says he's not convinced a bill is necessary.

Mr. Busch ought to take a look around. Plenty of states make committee votes available to the public at the click of a mouse and in a timely way -- Virginia, to name one. New York's legislature recently overhauled its Web site to provide fuller, better and more immediate information online. The vast majority of laws passed in this country, and a substantial chunk of the public dollars spent on education, transportation, public safety and health, pass through the hands of state legislatures. This is the people's business. Why does Maryland continue to hide so much of it from public scrutiny?


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