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Editorial: Live stream Maryland General Assembly floor sessions

Tonight, Carroll County’s delegation to Annapolis will have its annual public hearing in Westminster to hear comments on proposed county-level legislation. The meeting will take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 22, in the Reagan Room of the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St. in Westminster, and will focus on legislative requests from the Board of County Commissioner and other legislation that is specific to Carroll County.

Among legislation to be discussed are changes to liquor license applications, changes in certain gaming laws, and bond initiatives for the Boys & Girls Club of Westminster and a potential turf field.

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It is an excellent opportunity for the public to participate in the legislative process, and it doesn’t require a trip to Annapolis to do so.

When it comes to regular sessions and debates in Annapolis, however, things aren’t quite so transparent.

Maryland remains one of just a handful of states that does not offer live streaming video of debates on the floor of its two chambers: the Senate and House of Delegates. It does offer audio of these sessions, but because of a rule that prohibits the use of personal names, it is practically impossible to know who is saying what.

The state does live stream and archive videos of committee hearings, but committee voting sessions where members actually debate the bills are not recorded or archived.

Efforts to change this have stalled in recent years. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and others have pushed for legislation to outfit the 120-year-old Maryland State House with video cameras in order to live stream these proceedings and have them archived in the name of government openness and accessibility. Last year, Hogan’s Transparency Act of 2018, received an unfavorable report in the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee and never made it out of a Senate Committee.

The argument, primarily coming from Democratic leaders in Annapolis, against live streaming has been that it costs too much. According to an article from MarylandReporter.com on last year’s Senate committee hearing on the legislation, the $1.1 million price tag was again the concern from committee Democrats. Much of that is one-time costs in the first year to purchase the equipment and have it installed. In out years, the costs ranged from approximately $200,000 to $217,000 for staff to operate and maintain the equipment.

This is hardly a deal-breaking price tag in a budget estimated to exceed $46 billion this coming year, nevermind the irony of Maryland Democrats balking because something costs too much.

A few years ago, in voicing his opposition, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, argued that preventing permanent records of discussions during the voting sessions also helps encourage a more free-flowing debate. This flies in the face of government transparency. How can government officials expect to be held accountable by the public if we don’t know their true feelings on an issue? Maybe that’s exactly the point.

In Carroll County, residents are able to easily watch public sessions of the Board of County Commissioners, Board of Education and council meetings of many of Carroll’s towns via live-streamed or archived video on demand from the comfort of their own home. How absurd is it that state lawmakers get a pass when these other agencies have taken steps to improve transparency?

If a Maryland resident wishes to attend a floor session or a committee voting session, they likely would have to take a day off work, drive to Annapolis and back home, and pay for parking. State government shouldn’t be this inaccessible.

It’s well past time for all of our state lawmakers to pass legislation that offers a closer look at the machinations of the General Assembly, and approve live video streaming of the legislative session.

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