Sen. Marc Keahey, Sen. Cam Ward, Rep. Joe Hubbard, and Rep. John Merrill will be blogging here during the 2011 Legislative Session.

Legislative Transparency

There are a lot of issues to debate before we begin the final days of this session. In fact, I am quite certain there will be some comments on this post debating many of them. Before we get into the last seven day of the session I wanted to bring up a topic that has been on my mind during this break. How can the legislature provide more transparency to our work in the legislature?

When I was first elected 9 years ago I remember someone asking me if I had a web site. Fortunately I did, but at the time I was naïve enough to think that was cutting edge transparency. Technology is constantly changing and I hope that state government will learn to keep up with these changes. However, I realize that most real change in transparency and access will come from those in the general public. Those demands for increased access seem to always facilitate the greatest improvement.

I know that the ALISON bill tracking system exists, but it is sorely lacking in many ways. Also, Sen. Del Marsh has been quite proactive in providing a streaming video available to the public while we are in session. Streaming audio is now also available which is unheard of eight years ago. My big question is what else should be done to improve on the current system?

This is not a loaded question looking to play gotcha politics with any one group. I realize my limits in technology and was hoping to hear from some of you in regards to your thoughts. While it might be too late in start something new this session, I would like to see what kind of changes we could work on after the legislature adjourns in June. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and ideas.

41 comments to Legislative Transparency

  • I would love to see a non-Flash-based version of ALISON so it would be possible to track bills fully on an iPhone or iPad.

  • We definitely need instant digital distribution of amendments/subs as they are proposed. In the era of iPads, iPhones, and Blackberries, there is no reason why anyone should have to clamor to find a hard copy of an amendment in committee or on the floor. The clerk should be able to scan the paper copy upon introduction and instantly send the PDF to a registered distribution list of members and interested citizens so that we all know what’s being proposed, debated, and voted on within seconds.

  • Wouldn’t it be great if Alison had a section where you could click on a legislator’s name and view campaign contribution data?

  • Stephen

    I appreciate the senate video. The SOS has info on campaign contributions. I would like to see a site that has transcripts of the senate sessions.

    Thanks,
    Stephen

  • Dirt McGurt

    Why don’t you be transparent about why you voted against tenure reform?

  • I am the developer of OpenBama.org. I track the legislation that is debated in Montgomery (a public version of ALISON if you will). I would love to see bulk access to the legislative data. The process to get the data can be unreliable and prone to errors. Other states have done similar things:

    http://techpresident.com/blog-entry/new-hampshire-opens-its-states-legislative-data

    http://legis.state.va.us/SiteInformation/ftp.htm

    Those of us in the opengov movement preach that ultimate transparency is to have bulk access to the data. Pretty government websites are nice but often still make it difficult to truly see what is going on. Bulk access provides the means for private developers like myself to create very informative websites that provide a public benefit.

    Here is a link to Sunlight Foundation’s 10 principles for opendata.

    http://sunlightfoundation.com/policy/documents/ten-open-data-principles/

    Thank you Senator Ward for you efforts in this area.
    Stephen J

  • woody

    Dirty… Why not just honor a request for information without burying a gotcha in your comment?

    Thank God, we now have legislators like Cam Ward who care about what the electorate thinks. For the first time ever in my lifetime (a loooong one), we have principled leadership in our Senate and a majority of senators who’re trying to honor campaign promises. It’s great that the voters are being asked questions and that someone cares about our answers.

    Cam, I’m really pleased with being able to watch and/or hear the goings on. I believe the vast majority of Alabamians are unaware that we have this opportunity to witness government in action and would, if informed, would want to participate. My only suggestion at this poing would be to better inform the electorate that this is available. If as many voters as possible would watch this “sausage making”, we’d really make progress as a state.

    I’ve been aghast at how the democrat side has wasted as much time as possible, ON BILLS THEY PLAN TO VOTE FOR, just to be obstructionists to the Republican agenda. Whether or not the bill on the floor is good or bad, Bedford insists on sending Smitherman, Singleton or Coleman to filibuster.

    They intentionally burn as much of the legislative session as possible in order that you, Marsh and your fellow Republicans don’t accomplish your agenda — which was overwhelming endorsed by the voters. To Bedford, et al, it’s not about doing what’s best for Alabama, it’s all about trying to keep their opponents from looking good.

    Fellow Alabamians, we’ve been given a privilege to watch. We should do that and spread the word to our friends. It’s really informative.

  • woody

    Stephen, I doubt you’d want to spend any time reading a transcript of a Smitherman filibuster. Talk about an embarrassment to the state of Alabama!

    Here’s a “practicing attorney”, according to his Senate bio, whose communication skills are at elementary school-level ebonics. He’s also the immediate past President Pro Tem of the democrat-controlled senate.

  • anon

    Instead of having the bills scanned in as pictures, please have them scanned in as text so that they are searchable. This way if you are looking for certain language in a bill it will make it easier to find.

  • Tom in Madsion

    Write short bills that citizens can read and understand.

  • Brian Johnson

    Make all of you disclose every lobbyist or spouse of a lobbyist or anyone you meet trying to influence your vote on legislation who has the money to provide your campaign with a contribution more than $100. This should be disclosed on the internet within 15 minutes of the meeting happening. You need to hire more staff for each member to do it…HEY LOOK! YOU JUST CREATED JOBS AND TRANSPARENCY IN GOVERNMENT!

    But instead y’all keep going after Latinos and un-wed women…

  • SamfordDem

    Here is one where I will agree with OpenBama (and, as it happens, true small government conservatives as well). Instead of using the state itself as the filter of what is and what is not important, turn over data in real time not just from the full floor but also from committees to entities like OpenBama who can then craft innovative and accessible ways for the public to search that information.

  • Ed

    While making Alison information available in bulk is a great idea, the problem I see right now is input. I was following one bill on which the Alison info was “2nd reading in house of origin,” but if I clicked on the View button, the last page of the bill said it had passed the Senate. Later on it did pass and the final page of the bill was changed so that the date of passage was corrected.

    Other times, I have read the AP recap story about legislative action, and seen a bill described as passing the House/Senate with amendments. I look at Alison and the bill is still in “2nd reading.”

    B Taylor calls for instant access to amendments. I think that should be easier than “scanning.” It appears to me that most of these amendments are prepared by the Legislative Reference Service. Alison lists them by the code number on the upper left of the first page of the amendment. It ought to be easy enough to import those amendment immediately to Alison from the LRS computer. It will take some added personnel perhaps. But the cost is worth the transparency gains for all of the people.

    Senator, thanks for asking about this, by the way.

  • D.W.

    In keeping with many of the previous opinions, a good starting point is to update/upgrade Alison so that it can be easily viewed reflecting all status changes, including amendments, in a more timely and accurate manner. The timely and accurate availability of information is essential to legislative transparency.
    Unless I have missed it, easy and timely public access to legislative votes does not exist and would also greatly enhance transparency for the public.

  • Interested Party

    When you check the committee schedule, there is only a short title and bill number. Listing of sponsor would be helpful.

    Allison times you out of the current session if you are inactive for a very short period. Would be beneficial for that period to be extended

    Also, listing of committee meetings in chronological order would be helpful. (Senate is now doing this )

    Additionally, there is no way currently to know if a local bill is contested, other than to check with the clerk. Would be helpful here if Allison so indicated when contest filed with clerk of the body

    Thanks for letting the users make some suggestions !

  • Kluger

    I agree with Anon. An scanned PDF that has been post processed (OCR) to allow for searchable text would be great. Another thing would be for the linking of revisions in individual bills, a summary of all revisions could be included in a PDF form that allows for faster consumption by the general population.

    This could be done directly when bills are drafted. Simply require a digital PDF version be submitted with proposed legislation. For those of us in private business its as simple as “Print to PDF” as opposed to “Print to HP.”

  • There need to be simple statuses like Introduced, Passed House of Origin, etc. You can still have the more detailed statuses.

    The actions are not in order if the actions all occur on the same day. I’m assuming this is because the action date is not stored with a timestamp.

    A search by subject is greatly needed. This is one of the things that originally frustrated me with ALISON was I did not know where to begin. The search options available to me were not helpful.

  • illrember

    Well, Woody. Aren’t you the pot calling the kettle black? You bury your own insults right in there. Did you ever stop to think that Bedford and others ATTEMPT to debate issues that they end up voting for because that is what THEIR constituents want? Sadly (and I’m not saying the democrats didn’t aren’t guilty of this too) many votes this year have included a twisted arm, a threat over a promised position, or redistricting. Yes, people want their representative to speak out and stand up for them.

    Cam- Thanks for asking this question. I would, like everyone else, like to see ALISON easier to maneuver- particularly on my IPHONE. I would also like it to be more up-to-date and make the votes of legislators easier to find for each bill.

  • Mark

    The only way to TRULY know what is going on in the legislature is to hire a lobbyist to roam the halls for you for 30 days and report back to you on a daily basis.

    Other than that, you are pretty much screwed.

    Can anyone offer anything that will change my opinion?

  • Proud AEA member

    Cam, you are one of the good guys. You actually read and respond on topic to your e-mail unlike some of the other members of the legislature. While I may not always agree with your positions I respect your dedication and honesty. I think that in and off itself is a sign of transparency.

  • I have had several people mention the idea of having an app for ALISON in a more user friendly format. I think Louisana has this same app. Do any of you know about this? Also, I appreciate everyone sharing their ideas on this. It seems one of the biggest problems with ALISON is the lack of being able to search documents as well as download large amounts of data from the web site. Also, I think streamling some of the stuff mentioned like second readings, etc was good too. I find ALISON a frustrating search myself so it definitely needs to be updated in a more user friendly format. Again thanks for the comments and feel free to send them on to me any time. Thanks especially to Open Bama for the service you provide and the advice you gave on upgrading the state web site.

  • Jug

    How about a way to tell how a legislator voted on bills before committee & the house/senate? If there is a way to see this on allison I would appreciate someone telling me how.

  • Any upgrades to Alison would be an improvement, but the best transparency initiative would make it easier for voters to follow the money.

    Currently, campaign finance reports are scanned as PDFs and have to be retrieved individually. They need to be in a searchable database format. The federal govt. presents campaign finance info like that and other states do as well. Why not Alabama?

  • AMEN Countrycat. I have pushed that same legislation for years and I believe Sen Arthur Orr of Morgan County actually will get that legislation pushed into law this session.

  • Kluger

    Sen. Ward, are you talking about SB136?

  • countrycat & Sen. Ward –

    Secretary of State Beth Chapman stands ready to implement such a change when the Legislature passes a bill to authorize us to do that. The biggest challenge we have now is we lack the legal authority to require reports be submitted electronically.

    We’ve been in contact with Sen. Orr about his bill and have offered our suggestions to him, which he has incorporated. If his bill passes this session, an electronic system like that will be up and running in time for the 2014 cycle.

  • Yes, Kluger I was referring to SB136.

  • Yaaay! Headed to Alison now (shudder) to check out the text & status of the bill. This would be a tremendous improvement!

  • Josey Wales

    Cam, eliminate voice votes, even in committee. Everyone’s vote should be recorded on every item.

    Dirt,
    calling Senate Bill 310 “Tenure Reform” is like calling what happened to Hackleburg “Neighborhood Reform”. I’ll pass, thank you.

  • D.W.

    Josie has a valid point. Although making it easy to access to legislative voting online in a timely and accurate manner, there will probably be a tendency to have increased voice voting to limit true transparency. Still, the public deserves a method to access voting records easily and timely.
    Would SB 136 also require disclosure for state-wide ballot issues, and not just campaigns, that special interest groups spend huge amounts of money on to influence voters?

  • Dirty Harry

    @CAM, Looks like you stood up for your Congressional District…I mean Senate district ;)

  • woody

    illRemember… You make a good point. In re-reading my post, I was wrong to make some of those subjective comments.

    In the future, I’ll try to stick more to the topic.

  • Thanks again to everyone for you input on this subject. I am compiling a lot of info together to work on this after we adjourn in a couple of weeks. From reading all your comments it is obvious that there are some serious flaws in the current system. Hopefully we can start making some changes as to how we have information available to the public. Thanks again for the comments!

  • Proud AEA member

    Cam the current version of SB 310 passed as a substitute bill at the last minute with little or no debate because of cloture by the Republican majority. I was watching the entire process and the bill itself was not posted in Allison until after it passed the Senate…..One would hope that these types of shenanigans will stop……reminds me of the 60′s and 70′s when Senator “The Wiley Fox from Wilcox ” Ronald Cooper would have language inserted into bills at the last minute unbeknown to everyone except the people it would benefit…

  • Proud AEA I agree with part of your statement but totally disagree about there being little or no debate on SB 310. The debate that night went for hours. Also both sides including many senators sat in negotiations between the school board association and AEA for several days in a row. There was in fact ALOT of debate on the sub and everyone knew what was in it when it was voted on. Anyone who says they didn’t know what was in that sub is just not telling the truth. I was there and everyone knew the issues and knew we had reached an impasse on the final sticking points.

  • Proud AEA member

    I think you missed my point……no doubt there was ALOT of debate on SB310……my point is the final substitute that came up for vote was brought to the floor after 12:00 Ann voted on with limited debate before 1:00…

  • Proud AEA member

    Finally, thank you for your no vote……I think it shows that you want a fair process

  • Well for the record I have been in the AEA Journal on the bad list several times this session and probably on my own party’s bad list a couple of times. On this site alone I’ve been called a reactionary by some and not conservative enough by others. Guess I’ve just learned to take it all in stride and do what I think is best for my district depending on which issue it is and let the cards fall where they fall

  • Kluger

    Proud AEA,

    After reading the subsitute, did you find and Wiley Fox language?

    I didn’t think so.

    Cam, you don’t have to explain your votes to the forum, just to your constituents. Although, we do appreciate your candor.

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  • Jack

    Transparency?

    Ok, here is what you, Senator, can do to ultimate transparency:

    Demand, on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, June 9th, that SJR 5, by Senator Dial, be reported from the Senate Rules Committee.

    That is the Senate Joint Resolution which repeals the 61% pay raise you guys got in 2007, via your monthly “expense allowance”.

    SJR 5 has been sitting in the Senate Rules Committee since the 1st Leg. Day.

    Most of the new Republicans in the Senate campaigned on repealing that 61% pay raise.

    You’ve made teachers and state employees pay more for everything, but the only people who have made NO SACRIFICE are Senators.

    You might have “voluntarily” turned down the 1.2% cost of living increase in April, but the pubic has been misled into thinking you repealed your 61% increase……They won’t be fooled in 2014.

    Also, Senators and House members are spending money like drunken sailors by spreading their operations to the 3rd and 4th floors of the State House – with tons of money being spent, right now, on “caucus lounges” and accomodating all the interns and drivers who are being paid out of the Pro Tempore’s budget (not the Legislature’s operating budget).

    So, I’ll believe you want transparency when you repeal the 61% pay increase from 2007, as your party said it would do, and start sacrificing yourself.

    As it is, everyone is sacrificing, EXCEPT LEGISLATORS.

    Voters remembered that 2007 pay increase in the 2010 elections…..They’ll remember that you didn’t repeal it in 2014.

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