Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pass the "Read the Bills" Bills

In addition to other transparency and open government measures being promoted in Maryland's General Assembly (see my pieces here and here), there are "Read the Bills" bills. These are proposed measures that in one form or another require that bills be posted on the Internet – along with the "Fiscal Note" – a certain number of days before they are voted on in committee are on the floor of the legislative chamber.

The somewhat innocuous-sounding Fiscal Notes are the all-important statements that are intended to inform legislators of the budgetary impact of the law to which they are attached. While always of importance, of course, in today's environment of projected $1.5 billion budget deficits, they are more important must-reading than ever.

The "Read the Bills" bills are so-called because the required Internet posting and time interval before legislative action are designed to provide time for legislators to…….read the bills. For summary information on three of them, see this post on the Blue Ridge Forum site. Like the bills designed to open up other facets of Maryland's legislative process, passage of the "Read the Bills" measures would be a step in the right directions towards empowering citizens to hold their elected officials more accountable for their actions. Indeed, in her detailed December 2008 study entitled "Structural Solutions for Maryland's Structural Deficit: Pathways to Reform," the Free State Foundation's Cecilia Januszkiewicz recommended posting of fiscal notes on the Internet at least two days before the first hearing on a proposed bill. (This was one of Cecilia's nine recommendations. Anyone seriously interested in budgetary and fiscal reform in Maryland, should read this FSF study.)

It is worth pointing out that one of the proposed bills highlighted in the Blue Ridge Forum post, House Bill 437, has a rather large built-in exception – one big enough to drive the proverbial truck through. The Internet posting requirement does not apply to bills for which a vote for final passage will be taken within four days of the end of a legislative session. Oops! That's when a proverbial truckload of the important bills are usually passed – at the very end of the session.

There is no reason why that loophole should not be closed. If necessary, legislators can delay their exit for a few extra days before shutting down. Or better yet – get their business done earlier in an orderly fashion that avoids the last-minute rush which is prone to hurried back-room deals.

So, while there appears to be a movement afoot to adopt some meaningful open government reforms, there is still important work to be done.