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Albany Needs a Whole Lot More Sunshine

January 16, 2009

By Lise Bang-Jensen

New York's huge budget deficit—$15.4 billion in the next 15 months—will force difficult choices in terms of government services and tax policies for years to come. To engage intelligently in that debate, New Yorkers need far more information than we now receive from Albany.

As the Brennan Center for Justice observes in "Still Broken," a report on state legislative reform released this month, the Assembly and Senate maintain Web sites that are poorly organized and contain few of the products of the lawmaking process. Well into the information revolution, the legislature acts as if we're still in the technological era of Pong. Earlier this week, the new majority leader of the State Senate, Malcolm Smith, took a small step forward by adding a commitment to transparency in the Senate's new operating rules. They now say: "[The Majority Leader] shall, to the extent practicable, use the Internet and other electronic media to provide access to the public policy debates, decision-making process and legislative records of the Senate."

We are hopeful that the sun will soon begin to shine in that chamber. But the Assembly rules on transparency are unchanged—that is, the body will likely remain opaque.

As of last session, the legislature's two houses posted calendars, press releases and live only video feeds on their sites, yet little to nothing from the actual lawmaking process. Both houses offer coloring books for kids, but no record of votes on bills in their education committees. In fact, there are no records of committee votes available. Tracking a bill on either chamber's site is frustrating if you don't know the bill's number. California and Connecticut offer models of legislative transparency.

California's site includes a trove of information, including daily journals and videos of floor proceedings. Connecticut's site offers committee minutes, vote tally sheets and streaming video of proceedings.

In Mexico, federal agencies must post budgets, public employee salaries, contracts, grants and permits on the Internet. In contrast to the legislature, New York's executive branch took noteworthy steps last year to increase public information on the Internet:

—The Paterson administration's budget Web site (www.budget.state.ny.us) includes up-to-date documents and agency submissions describing their programs.

—Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's Project Sunlight (www.sunlightny.org) offers easily accessible data about elected officials, campaign finance, lobbyists, legislative member items, and registered corporations and charities.

—Comptroller Tom DiNapoli released Open Book New York (www.openbooknewyork.com), a searchable inventory of 60,000 active state contracts and expenditure data for 3,100 local governments and more than 100 state agencies.

Though still in their infancy, these sites offer the promise of more governmental transparency in the future. They—as well as Web pages in other states light-years ahead of ours—should prod our legislature to follow their example. This now seems likely in the Senate.

In New York, records of the legislature and other governmental entities are available to citizens by request, under the state Freedom of Information Law. But should it be necessary to make a formal request for public documents in the information age? The law sets a minimum standard, yet public officials should be proactive in releasing documents.

Freedom of Information Law requests can take days, weeks or even months. By the time a citizen gets the requested information, it may be too late to make use of it.

Sometimes information is available, but only in a format that makes it difficult to decipher. For example, both the Senate and Assembly publish reports detailing office expenditures of their 212 combined members, but the reports are released as paperback books—making it hard to compare spending by individual legislators.

Software programmers at the Empire Center for New York State Policy spent 60 hours reformatting the data to allow searches on www.SeeThroughNY.net. The site also includes the entire state payroll; payrolls of 19 public authorities and the City of New York; legislative pork barrel projects; and 1,400 teacher union and school superintendent contracts. But while the center's work is important, the burden should be on government, not private groups, to make this information accessible.

In its 2007 annual report, the state's Committee on Open Government proposed amending FOIL to create a policy of "proactive disclosure" by "requiring agencies to post records on their Web sites that are clearly public and frequently requested when an agency has the ability to do so without undue burden or cost."

The advantages of such disclosure are obvious: Citizens can access information instantly and for free; government is spared the administrative burden of complying with duplicative requests for the same records. That's a win-win for the public and government.

The State Legislature can score another win-win for greater transparency: First, by posting on the Web all its public records—hearing and floor debate transcripts, attendance records, voting records, etc.; and second, just in case, by amending FOIL to require proactive disclosure.

The Assembly and Senate offer coloring books for kids, but no record of votes on bills in their education committees. Andrew Stengel is director of national election advocacy for the Brennan Center for Justice.

 

 
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