Monday, March 12, 2007

Whither Transparency? Some Troubling News

Bill Search No Longer Includes Past Sessions or Voting Records...

In our copioius spare time here at the Brennan Center, we like to head to New York's Legislative Information bill search and reminisce about past unanimous votes and hearings never held. Recently, we've noticed something a little disturbing -- a move (possibly unintentional) away from transparency.

While New York's bill search site has never been as sophisticated as those of some states (see Ohio’s for a good example), the site has provided information like bill status, text, and sponsor’s memos.

However, since the beginning of the new session, the site no longer has information on bills that were introduced in the 2005-06 session. We made a phone call to the Assembly Public Information Office when we first noticed this in January, and after a few transfers, we were told by a man with a very reassuring voice that this phenomenon was temporary and would be resolved within a week or so.

We’re now regretting not getting that guy’s name and number, as many weeks have passed with no change.

A dearth of information from past sessions severely hampers the public’s ability to understand the history of specific pieces of legislation. This issue is brought into sharp relief by the fact that sponsor’s memoranda, which are available on the site for most bills, often refer to “prior legislative history” that is not available to the user. Without access to information from prior sessions, the public has no direct way of understanding how issues and bills have evolved over time.

Also (and perhaps more significantly) the site no longer appears to provide voting information on bills that have been passed (or defeated, though that rarely, if ever, happens in our Legislature). It is obviously very difficult for voters to hold their representatives accountable in the voting booth if they have no ready access to information about their legislators’ actions.

We are preparing a letter that includes this information and we’ll post it once we send it to the Legislature. And we'll be sending it just as soon as we can figure out who to send it to. So far, our attempts at penetrating the bureaucracy to figure out who runs the bill search website have been unsuccessful. Not a great statement about the transparency of a Legislature that claims to be reforming its ways.

1 comment:

Liam said...

the public LRS site (public.leginfo.state.ny.us) has NEVER included anything other than the current session's bills (a session is 2 years). The pay version of the site (lrs.state.ny.us) has info going back over a decade but costs more than $2,000 a year to subscribe to.

Additionally, the public site has various other failings. Including, but not limited to, delayed information, lacks several important search features and is often overloaded an inaccessible during high traffic times (such as June when a flurry of legislation activity occurs before the legislative recess).