Assembly to offer data on World Wide Web Public can read bills, track legislative action from home computers


Maryland's General Assembly is about to get caught up in a Web, but for once it won't be one of political intrigue.

By the time legislators convene for their 1997 session in January, a vast body of information about the workings of the legislature will be available to the public through the Internet's World Wide Web.

With a computer, modem and Internet account, a resident of Baltimore, Cumberland or even Tokyo will be able to track the progress of legislation as it winds through committees and to the floor.

Voters will be able to read the text of bills as they are introduced, and if they don't like what they see, they can instantly fire off an electronic message to their delegates or senators.

The Assembly's new Web site will give residents throughout the state access to information that previously was available only through terminals in the state government complex in Annapolis -- as well as some that was available only on paper.

By going online, the Assembly is setting in motion a process that could bring about dramatic changes in the way residents interact with legislators.

"This whole trend is very big for our democratic institutions," said Richard Varn, an Internet enthusiast who served 12 years in the Iowa legislature, which has put extensive information online.

Varn said legislators will soon learn one lesson about the Internet: "You can't sneak things through."

The Assembly's move onto the Internet has been in the works for about two years, but it was only this summer that the project received the go-ahead from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany Democrat.

"It's the speaker's and my contribution to the 21st century," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat. "It'll be here after we're gone."

The impact of the project might not be obvious for several years because the Internet now reaches only about 10 percent of households nationally. But the worldwide computer network has been growing at an astronomical rate.

"I would say that if by the end of the century we don't have 50 percent of our population on the Internet, I'd be very, very surprised," said Michael Langrehr, Maryland's executive director of information technology.

While Maryland will not be the first state legislature to make detailed, timely information available on the Internet, technology experts who have seen prototypes of the planned service say it will rank among the best.

"I was really blown away by it. I really have not seen anything like it," said Ken Karpay, a Baltimore-based media consultant.

The General Assembly does have a World Wide Web "home page" -- a sort of graphic entryway to a database -- but it offers little besides members' biographies and committee assignments.

Bob Edwards, director of the office that is developing the system, said the public will be able to connect to an improved Web site with a much richer database by early November. Once the session begins, the basic Assembly Web site will be updated every night with that day's action, he said. Access to that service will be free.

A second, enhanced level of service will let subscribers track legislative action with only a minute or two of lag time. Subscriptions to this service -- which Edwards said will be the first in the nation for a state legislature -- will cost $800.

One feature of the free service will be software that lets voters find out who represents them by typing in their nine-digit ZIP codes. The Assembly's Web site also will be tightly interwoven with the Maryland Archives and will provide point-and-click electronic links to other government agencies.

But one aspect of the project has left some public interest groups dissatisfied: Legislators' voting records and roll-call votes on individual bills will not be online -- at least initially. Some Annapolis veterans say the omission is largely a result of political concerns over how that information might be used.

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, expressed disappointment that the committee overseeing the project had not set a target date for putting voting records online.

"The issue is all about accountability. People want to know how their legislators vote," Povich said.

The criticism didn't sit well with Sen. John A. Cade, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Data Systems Advisory Committee.

"As far as I'm concerned, Common Cause will never be satisfied," the Anne Arundel County Republican harrumphed during a meeting last week. "We've got enough on our plate right now."

The cost of installing the new system is estimated between $75,000 and $93,000. Keeping it going is expected to cost the Assembly $25,000 to $55,000 annually.

The Assembly's move onto the Internet has been pushed by a bipartisan group of legislators who use computers extensively in their full-time jobs.

Some, such as Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, Montgomery County Republican; Del. Nancy K. Kopp, Montgomery County Democrat; and Del. Robert L. Frank, Baltimore County Democrat, have their own privately funded World Wide Web home pages where constituents can find information or express their views.

"The idea is to get the legislature close to the public and get them involved," Hogan said. "There's no doubt in my mind that a better-informed public will improve the process."

He said some sticky matters remain to be decided by the data systems committee. One involves whether to give each legislator a home page on the Assembly's computer system and, if so, under what guidelines.

"There is concern over the politicization of a home page," he said. "I don't want to see it become a re-election campaign vehicle for incumbents."

Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat who co-chairs the committee, predicted the wider availability of information will bring more public scrutiny.

He said that could prompt legislators to be more careful about the legislation they introduce -- particularly the laughable bills that members sometimes drop in the hopper as a favor to constituents or lobbyists. Fellow legislators know those bills will never pass, but ordinary residents won't see them as funny, he said.

"They're going to see some of these scary or outrageous bills, and we're going to have some firestorms as a result," he said.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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