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Watching the legislature in action

The Maryland General Assembly has taken important steps in the last few years in making its activities more accessible to the public. Its website is more usable than it was in the past. Votes taken in committees on whether to amend legislation or send it to the House or Senate floor are now posted online, and now the video of every committee bill hearing is live-streamed and archived. It's quite user-friendly; look up the bill, click a link and it will take you to the precise point in a hearing when discussion of that legislation is taking place.

What's missing, though, is a way for constituents to hear what their representatives are saying when they are attempting to persuade each other to support or oppose legislation, or explaining their own stances on it. Floor debates in the House and Senate are live-streamed and archived in an audio-only format, which makes them all but impossible for the average Marylander to follow, and committee voting sessions aren't recorded at all.

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Legislation co-sponsored by Del. Kathy Szeliga, the minority whip and Baltimore and Harford County Republican, and Del. David Moon, a Montgomery County Democrat, would begin to change that. The original version of their bill would have required streaming and archiving of both floor and committee voting sessions, but they dropped the committee sessions amid concerns from other lawmakers. That's a shame, but moving forward with video of the floor sessions would nonetheless be a big advance for the cause of government transparency.

The current system of audio streaming is wholly inadequate. The rules of professional courtesy employed in both the House and Senate generally forbid lawmakers from using one another's names during floor debates, which means that unless you have a great ear for particular legislators' voices, you're unlikely to have any idea who is talking. The audio cues from the presiding officers don't necessarily help either. As Delegate Szeliga points out, sometimes the speaker, in recognizing her turn to speak, will refer to her as "the delegate from Baltimore County," sometimes as "the delegate from Harford County," and sometimes as "the minority whip." Things can get much more esoteric in the Senate, where President Thomas V. Mike Miller occasionally plumbs the details of Maryland history in recognizing senators, as in "the senator from the mother county," meaning St. Mary's, meaning Sen. Stephen M. Waugh.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the legislation faces is its cost. The Department of Legislative Services estimates that it would cost about $1.2 million in the first year and more than $400,000 a year thereafter. There's reason to believe it won't really cost that much — or at least can be done more cheaply. DLS is estimating that it will cost more than $900,000 for equipment and installation, and that it will require four staffers earning nearly $70,000 each in annual salary and benefits to cover legislative sessions that take place during just 90 days a year. Gov. Larry Hogan, who announced his support for the legislation last week, scoffed at the idea that it would cost so much, noting that Board of Public Works meetings are live-streamed and archived at a cost of $3,000-$3,500 a year. No one would call those recordings network-broadcast quality, but they do the job.

But even if it really does cost that much, it's worth it. Maryland's annual general fund budget is about $17 billion. We can afford $400,000 so people can tell what their elected representatives are saying on their behalf. Even in terms of the legislature's budget, the additional expenditure is minuscule — less than half of one percent after the initial installation costs. Moreover, given Governor Hogan's enthusiastic support for the bill, we expect it wouldn't be so hard to convince him to allocate the necessary funds for it.

The only other objection raised at the bill hearing in the house was the idea that the videotaping would lead to grandstanding by legislators during floor debates and gum up the works generally. Given how seamlessly the streaming of committee hearings has worked out, we don't expect doing the same for floor sessions would cause any serious problems.

With Governor Hogan, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Mr. Miller on board (if somewhat testily so, in the case of the last two), we have high hopes that the bill will move forward this year. Maryland is one of only seven states that doesn't live-stream floor debates now, and it's past time we did. But it's not the last piece of unfinished business for the legislature when it comes to transparency. Our recommendation for what should be next on the list: a searchable database of legislators' votes. It's possible to find the information now on who voted for what, but it's not nearly as easy as it should be.

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