Lawmakers support push to report committee votes online

  • Hundreds of people rally outside the State House on Wednesday on behalf of the Maryland Mental Health Coalition, which is supporting efforts to raise the state alcohol tax to prevent reductions in services to people with mental illness.
Hundreds of people rally outside the State House on Wednesday… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
January 21, 2010|By Annie Linskey | annie.linskey@baltsun.com

A push to make state lawmakers' committee votes accessible online appears to be gaining momentum in Annapolis, with the Senate president and the House speaker indicating support for the idea.

The change could make available a flood of information about lawmakers' roles in crafting legislation by giving the public a quick and easy way to research who supported or opposed sometimes-contentious amendments.

"The most important votes we take are the ones at committee," said Del. Heather Mizeur, a Montgomery County Democrat who is preparing to introduce an open-government bill that requires committee votes to be reported online.

She said it is "rare" to have an extended debate on the House floor - where delegates are most closely watched - and that there are "egregious" examples of legislators voting to kill a popular bill in committee on behalf of a special interest and then switching their position and proclaiming support for the legislation when it comes to the full chamber.

Publicizing the committee votes, she said, "is just holding everyone more accountable to the decisions they are making."

Tom Stuckey, who retired from the Associated Press in 2006 after covering the State House for 43 years, said there's long been an institutional fear that easy access to committee votes will open lawmakers to attack from opponents.

"Sometimes a committee vote is not what it appears to be," Stuckey said. Lawmakers, for example, sometimes will cast a vote for an amendment they oppose as a way of blocking another one that they consider a worse alternative. But only the vote and not the context, Stuckey said, would be used in a political attack ad.

"Everyone knows that votes are used by both parties to cast the opponent in the worst light," he said.

The issue has dominated discussion on the Senate floor since Allan H. Kittleman, the Senate minority leader, introduced a rule change Tuesday that would require committee votes to be posted "as expeditiously as practicable." A similar change has been proposed in the House.

Kittleman, and other Republican leaders, also sent a letter to the House and Senate leaders linking the issue to a broader national theme by accusing the majority Democrat Congress of "making major decisions in the backrooms" on the contentious health care reform bill and spurring "a public clamoring for greater transparency and accountability at all levels of governing."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has bristled at the partisan tone of the debate. "This is the type of 'gotcha' politics that exists in all 50 states," he said.

Nonetheless, he pledged Wednesday that "we'll find a way to get it done," despite concerns that if the Republican proposal is written too loosely it could "leave room for litigation."

Miller sounded less enthusiastic about a second transparency proposal made by Senate Minority Whip Nancy Jacobs, who wants to change the rules to state that all committee voting sessions are open to the public. House and Senate voting sessions are already open because of the state's sunshine rules.

"We have an open-meetings law," Miller said.

On the House side, Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell expects some debate as early as today on similar transparency measures. Alexandra Hughes, spokeswoman for Speaker Michael E. Busch, said he is "working toward" having the committee votes posted online this session and has been researching the issue for more than a year. Busch also supports showing hearings online, she said.

Currently, those interested in determining how a lawmaker voted in a House or Senate committee must either contact the committee directly or visit the Department of Legislative Services library in Annapolis, where copies of committee tally sheets are kept in file cabinets.

The Senate staffers also scan the tally sheets and post them online - but only after the legislative session is over.

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