Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Several bills require R.I. General Assembly votes to be posted online

Providence Journal

By Randal Edgar

Journal State House Bureau

Their sessions are on cable TV, they have individual pages on the state Web site and the bills they sponsor can be found online. But a perceived lack of openness with regard to how state lawmakers actually vote is prompting a flurry of bills this year that would require the General Assembly to post those votes online.

No less than six bills have been submitted in recent weeks. Some, like a bill sponsored by Rep. David A. Segal, D-Providence, would require all floor votes to be posted on the Assembly Web site. Others, like a bill sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown, would require all roll-call committee votes to be posted on the Web site.

The idea has support from groups such as Common Cause Rhode Island, the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, Operation Open Government and the Rhode Island Tea Party.

“This is about easy access,” Greta L. Abbott, a lobbyist for the Rhode Island League of Women Voters, told the House Finance Committee on Tuesday. “Most important, this is about accountability.”

As Abbott and others noted, House and Senate floor votes can be found online, but only in PDF documents that summarize one or more days of House or Senate floor activity. For Rhode Islanders who want to see what their lawmakers are up to, it can be days and weeks before those votes show up online, said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. And when they do show up, it’s not in the most user-friendly format.

“Those journals aren’t easy to search through,” he said.

By contrast, more than a dozen states post roll-call votes to the Internet in real time, and others post them in a searchable format, Marion said, citing a 2008 study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Committee votes are a different issue. Unlike floor votes in the Rhode Island Assembly, committee votes are not posted online, though they are recorded by clerks and compiled at the state library.

Marion also noted that Rhode Island, according to the NCLS report, is the only state that does not broadcast live video or audio of House and Senate sessions over the Internet.

House Speaker Gordon D. Fox said Wednesday that he is looking at possible changes.

“We are reviewing the legislation and checking to see what the additional costs would be … to upgrade our legislative Web site,” he said in a statement.

There was no response from the Senate leadership, but Sen. Leonidas P. Raptakis, D-Coventry, sponsor of two Senate bills that call for votes to be posted online, said the costs would be minimal. He pointed to New Hampshire’s Web site, which allows viewers to select a lawmaker and view all of his or her votes for a given year.

“People should know how their state representative or state senator voted as quickly as possible,” he said.

In all, there are three bills before the House Finance Committee and three before the Senate Constitutional and Regulatory Issues Committee. All were held for further study last week.

Ruggiero told the House Finance Committee that her bill, which would require all roll-call committee votes to be posted online, is not perfect but would be a step in the right direction.

“Right now there is not a way for our constituents to see how committee votes are taken,” she said. “We want to make sure that we have good clean government and certainly transparency. That’s really the intent of this.”

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