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Transparency Could Extend Into the Committee Room

The Quorum Report

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Folks who spend a lot of time in committee hearing rooms deep underground in the Capitol can all relate to this scene: a public hearing where the witness reads a list of numbers off of prepared testimony that might as well be Greek to the vast majority of the public sitting in the seats behind the witness. That's because the only ones with easy access to a copy of that testimony are the lawmakers on the dais.

For sure, there are plenty of good reasons why this happens. Time constraints might hamper the ability to make enough copies for everyone, for instance. That's especially true in the maelstrom of legislative activity that takes hold in the final weeks of session.

But it stands to reason that the powers that be could find a way to use technology to ensure better access to information presented in a public hearing. In other words, how can the state use the Internet to strengthen the "public" aspect of public hearings?

A three-person team of students at the LBJ School of Public Affairs took a look at that issue as part of a larger, yearlong project on Texas financial transparency. The team concluded that while Texas has a long history of leading in the field of open government, it could do more to leverage technology to boost civic participation.

Specifically, the team focused on what happens when the main budget bill is referred to the various budget subcommittees for deliberation. The Legislative Budget Board creates documents both before (mark-up documents) and after (decision documents) the subcommittee hearings that are not publicly available. The LBJ School students recommend that these documents be made available to the public. To prevent the premature release of information, the mark-up documents could be timed to pop up online at the start of a scheduled subcommittee hearing, the students suggested.

Team member Castlen Kennedy told QR this week that these suggestions seem like a relatively easy, low-cost way of promoting information that could hardly be considered sensitive because it's being presented in public hearings.

She said that the only cost would probably be an LBB staffer's time. "The good thing about these recommendations, it does not require legislation or the rules to be changed," she said. "It only requires LBB to tell staff this is a good idea. I don't think it would require a whole lot to ramp up."

Others suggest even more low tech solutions to improving access. Eva DeLuna Castro of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a think tank that advocates on behalf of low-income Texans, said that budget documents could be projected onto a wall in the committee room.

Other agencies, such as the HHSC, routinely post the PowerPoint presentations that form the basis of their committee testimony online prior to appearing before a legislative panel.

And while these suggestions don't solve all of the problems associated with transparency in committee hearings, these steps would help.

The public would "at least be able to follow the conversation more easily." Kennedy, who said she has worked legislative sessions although not as a legislative staffer, said that improving access to these documents would help more than just the general public. Legislative staffers have told her team that they also run into problems getting copies of the documents for their bosses who might not be on the committee but whose districts might be impacted by what's being discussed.

Kennedy's team also suggested the use of timestamps on archived video of committee hearings to help the public track when a particular witness testified. Currently, someone trying to find one specific witness sometimes must trawl through hours of video to find the snippet of testimony.

In addition, the team suggested the LBB look at ways to create a public database that would incorporate the entirety of the budget process. The database should offer the raw data to allow the public to take that data and create their own documents that help explain and put the budget numbers into proper context.

Kennedy said that her team has initiated conversations with both the Speaker's Office and with the office of Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts - both of whom have seats on the LBB. She said that the team planned to meet sometime soon with their Senate counterparts - the Lieutenant Governor's Office and the office of Finance Chairman Steve Ogden.

By John Reynolds

Copyright April 28, 2010, Harvey Kronberg, www.quorumreport.com

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