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Point-and-click democracy Online in Annapolis: Legislature's Web site a big step toward a more informed public.


ONE OF THE biggest problems with the legislative process today is that so many citizens are ill-informed about it. Ironically, the ignorance gets worse when the government gets closer to home -- the biggest headlines and high school social studies discussions focus on Washington events, not the state capital or county seat.

More people know their congressman than their state delegates or council member. Anything that encourages citizen involvement in state and local government helps, such as the Maryland General Assembly's new World Wide Web service.

The legislature goes online in the upcoming session in January; anyone with a computer, modem and an Internet account will be able to read legislation, register approval or disapproval via electronic messages to lawmakers and enjoy computer access other government agencies. The government's outlay is reasonable -- up to $93,000 to install the system and up to $55,000 annually to operate it.

Eventually, if the cost of computers and computer services drops to the point where more households are online, the Internet could revolutionize the political process. At this point, the number of homes with Internet access is still so small (about 10 percent) that the assembly's venture online won't have much impact. The Department of Legislative Reference does not even expect the Web site to reduce the number of phone inquiries or requests for bills on old-fashioned paper.

For now, the impact of this change will be felt mostly by individuals hungry for information. The Web site will make keeping up with legislation on a daily basis effortless. Unfortunately, the assembly's online service doesn't come with tools to help folks understand what they're reading, such as summaries of bills or notes explaining what a piece of legislation will cost. The dense, convoluted text of bills will discourage or confuse many. Inclusion of synopses and fiscal notes is the logical next step in the evolution of this online system.

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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