Crowdsourcing Maryland's democracy
By Heather R. Mizeur and Ryan O’Donnell
Our state government must be doing something right. Maryland has the best schools in the nation and one of the strongest workforces, and it was ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the top states for business.
Citizen engagement in the political process is vital to fostering that success. In the General Assembly, for example, anyone can testify on any bill in front of any committee. Nevertheless, it’s time to build on that strength by providing better access and more timely, comprehensive information to the public — both in the General Assembly and at the Board of Public Works. This, in turn, will allow our state government to make the best possible decisions.
The General Assembly relies on input from the business owners, doctors, teachers, electricians, social workers and scientists whose livelihoods and missions are affected by state law. This input is critical because most state legislators here have day jobs and can’t be experts on every issue.
For the 90 days every year that the General Assembly convenes to do the state’s business, a torrent of information, opinions and advice flows into Annapolis. To ensure that the voices of everyday Marylanders can rise above that din, we should institute policies that make information as available and engagement as easy as possible.
Reforms should start with the General Assembly’s online legislative tracking system. “Up-to-the-minute” access provides nearly instantaneous information on the bills and proceedings on the House and Senate floors, but it is available only to those in state office buildings and the couple hundred lobbyists willing to pay $800 a year to get these updates faster than once a day.
Greater public access and information could also improve the committee system in Annapolis, where most of the General Assembly’s deliberative work gets done.
Posting committee votes online is a necessary step forward, and one that will help ensure voters can hold their legislators accountable for the decisions they make. But why wait until after the fact? To influence the process, citizens need to be able to participate more reliably. They should be able to watch committee proceedings, sign up to testify online and check the order in which bills will be heard at least one day in advance.
Attention must also be paid to the Board of Public Works, which is made up of Maryland’s governor, comptroller and treasurer. This panel has immense power to approve contracts and cut the state budget. In the current fiscal year, for example, it has slashed more than $950 million in spending.
Given its authority, the board is at times decisive to policymaking: In recent months, it has decided to close Chestertown’s Upper Shore Community Mental Health Center, leased the Port of Baltimore’s Seagirt Terminal to a private company for 50 years, eliminated 533 state jobs and moved toward awarding monitoring contracts for the state’s slots facilities. And yet most of these decisions are made with minimal public awareness, input or scrutiny.
It’s time for the Board of Public Works to become as transparent as it is powerful. Its hearings should be broadcast online, its agenda should be posted well in advance of any meeting and its decisions should be preceded by a period of public comment. It is, after all, our Board of Public Works.
These changes would impose only modest costs, which could be met by a small increase in the registration filing fee for state lobbyists. Because lobbyists would no longer be on the hook for the $800 up-to-the-minute access fee, they might even come out ahead.
Just as companies now routinely open software to beta testing by thousands of users for refinement, so, too, could our state government use information technology to increase public participation in and improve the outcomes of our decision-making. The keys to making this a reality are providing more reliable access to the process and timely, comprehensive information about what state government is doing.
Danish physicist Niels Bohr called openness the “best weapon of a democracy.” We should recommit ourselves to this ethic to give Maryland the edge it needs to continue succeeding in the 21st century.
Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and the lead sponsor of the Maryland Open Government Act. Ryan O’Donnell is executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
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