Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Steps Toward A More Open Maryland Government

The sudden receptivity of the Maryland General Assembly to measures to increase transparency regarding the legislature's work is certainly welcome. A decision has already been made to put committee votes online for the first time. Because much of the real work of legislating is done in committee, this is an important step in providing citizens access to information that will help them hold their representatives accountable.

And as indicated in the Maryland Reporter, a bill has been introduced that would take other steps to make the Assembly's work more transparent and open. The Maryland Open Government Act, House Bill 344, would require all legislative hearings to be broadcast on the General Assembly's website. And it would allow witnesses at legislative hearings to sign up to testify on bills online, rather than in person two hours before a hearing as they now must do.

Moreover, committees also would have to publish the order in which bills will be heard one day in advance. As things stand now, there is no telling in what order bills will be brought up. The system of constantly shuffling bills, roulette-like, might work well for lawyers or others paid by the hour to sit in legislative hearings, but not for ordinary citizens taking time out from busy schedules to travel to Annapolis to put in their two cents worth.

I'm sure there will be plenty to criticize when the General Assembly gets down to legislating, especially if, per its "spending like there's no tomorrow" tradition, it fails to exercise any spending restraint -- even in face of the looming $1.5 billion plus deficit. But at least if steps are taken to increase the transparency of legislature's activities and ease citizen access to information, Maryland's taxpayers will be in a better position to know whom to blame – or praise.