Despite approving and spending some $750,000 in technology upgrades for themselves, state lawmakers are restricting constituent access to the most fundamental legislative information.
As Tennessee’s 132 House and Senate members undergo training in how to use their new $3,000 IBM laptop computers and how to navigate the state’s legislative Internet Web site, constituents accessing the site can’t even find out how individual members vote on specific legislation. And it’s not because the technology won’t allow the information to be made public. Instead, the lawmakers simply want the votes kept off.
“That information isn’t on the Web. It’s a policy issue,” says Richard McKinney, director of the General Assembly’s Legislative Information Services, who works at the pleasure of the House and Senate speakers.
While constituents can find out less pertinent information about legislation, such as which committees have handled bills and when they are scheduled for floor votes, House and Senate members have made sure that the actual voting records of individual lawmakers remain inaccessible via the Web.
“You can physically walk into the clerk’s office and you can get a printout of a vote on a specific bill,” says one lawmaker unhappy with the arrangement. “But they don’t want to put it out in an electronic form because they don’t want people to compile a voter history on the members.”
In short, while the technology is capable of such searches, legislators want to keep interest groups and citizens from amassing such comprehensive data. Restricting such knowledge means it’s tougher, too, for political opponents to make sweeping claims about how lawmakers vote. Even though the information is technically a public record, it’s more difficult to compile by going to the clerk’s office and asking for printouts on specific legislative votes. In fact, the clerk’s office has made a practice of requiring inquiries to be very narrowrelated to a single, specific billrather than allowing constituents broad leeway in requesting information.
But if there’s some retribution for lawmakers practicing such offensive, behind-the-scenes incumbency protection, it’s that there’s something they missed. Because of the new technology, one thing that has always been held sacred in the General Assemblyand unavailable to the publicis now readily available to voters. The item in question is called the “sponsor list.” Before now, legislative staffers were directed to protect the list of legislation each House and Senate member sponsored. Instead of searching endlessly for a parking space downtown, then steering their way through the smoky halls of the Legislative Plaza only to be told they can’t have the list, constituents can now search the Web site by a member’s name and get the protected information.
Putting expensive laptop computers with extensive capabilities in the hands of state legislators can pose some interesting questions. One of them is whether the information exchanged on those laptops is subject to the state’s open records act.
Legislative attorneys say it probably is. In fact, state House and Senate members are being told in training sessions that their electronic communications with other members, with constituents, and anyone else for that matter, is probably a matter of public record.
“My guess is that any Tennessee citizen can walk in and ask to see the information on the state’s e-mail server,” says Lynn Goldberg, a legislative attorney holding computer training sessions for lawmakers. “What I’m telling them is don’t do anything on these machines that you wouldn’t do on legislative stationery.”
What that means is that all irreverent banter, every risqué joke, and even any electronic flirtation legislators may send on their state-issued laptops could be subject to discovery.
“This puts the reporters on Capitol Hill in the glorious position of just waiting for one of us to screw up,” one lawmaker says.
Babs bows out
Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Barbara Haynes, who recently proclaimed that she was being “overwhelmed by people” asking her to run for mayor, now says she won’t make the August race.
Haynes, who would have added some gender diversity to what is quite literally a three-man race to succeed Mayor Phil Bredesen, issued a statement, though, saying she has a “strong interest in serving as Nashville’s mayor in the future” and that she “may pursue that dream at a later time.”
Haynes, 61, wife of Democratic state Sen. Joe Haynes, says she is “motivated to run because I have a very strong interest in offering leadership on issues that can be addressed best from the office of the mayor.”
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