Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Importance of Hearings on Bills

There is no better time to understand what's wrong with the way the New York State legislature works than right now. In the closing weeks of a New York legislative session, dozens of bills pass through committees and each chamber's floor with no debate and little indication that the legislators have reviewed the bills on which they are voting.

The Assembly, in particular, has gotten better about holding hearings on general topics: economic development, judicial reform, redistricting, property taxes, have all been the subject of hearings in the legislature in the last couple of years.

But rare indeed is the hearing in which legislators review, and ask the public to comment on, the language of a bill they are about to vote on.

Why does this matter? In a commentary issued today, Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting shows how the legislature's reluctance to hold heaerings on bills makes it all too likely that controversial and potentially troubling language will get slipped into bills and passed into law without the public (or even most legislators) being any the wiser. In this case, the language in question appears to be an attempt by Microsoft to weaken the State's ability to review the code running its soon to be purchased electronic voting machines:

[The] bill's stated purpose is to make “technical changes” to the recent law moving the date of New York's presidential primary to February. Because this bill involving the new primary date must be passed next week before the Legislative session ends (New York has jumped on the bandwagon to be part of the super presidential primary in February 2008) this grave weakening of the public’s right to review software would come along part and parcel with the primary date change. The players promoting this behind the scenes are relying on the fact that this reprehensible eradication of citizen protections won't be noticed until it's too late. If Microsoft and the vendor lobbyists had their way, the public would have known nothing about this until after the law passed.

If true, it's reprehensible, but nothing new. And it provides yet another example of the need for real transparency and substantive hearings on bills before they become law.

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