Following not one but three special sessions, the Texas legislature is now on summer vacation. Some observers of the statehouse and a few lawmakers are attempting to talk about the positives that came out of that work, specifically transparency. Mixed among transportation deals, and harsh, controversial cuts to women’s health care, local lawmakers did manage to make progress when it comes to making more of the public’s business, available to the public.
New laws will use technology to create searchable archives of legislative meetings, and communications. Texas will become the first state to allow lawmakers to communicate with colleagues between official meetings through an online message board. Archives of those communications will be accessible to the public and searchable. Messages will be kept for up to six years.
Bringing state legislatures into the mid 1990s as far as online communications go, may not seem like big news, but it is. Searchable discussion threads may provide a richer context around legislative goings on, making the message board a valuable tool not just for lawmakers but activists and interested citizens as well. The plan will also, hopefully, support a culture of openness at state legislative meetings, although some critics have worried that it may also push state officials to go dark for meetings around bills that may be controversial.
During the recent fight over women’s health care, interested citizens from across the country tuned into see what they could of statehouse meetings as broadcast online. Once tuned into the process, some were outraged to see votes scheduled for midnight or early morning hours in an effort to push things through. Bringing more communication online and into the public sphere will likely add to that scrutiny, and sunlight advocates hope that will have the knock on effect of making more of the public’s business above board.
“The public should know as much as possible about what government is doing,” state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who drafted the bill establishing the message boards told the San Antonio Express News.
Officials will also be able to video conference attend meetings as long as the public can see and hear them. Electronic messages sent by public officials will also be opened up – providing a modernization to Texas’ existing open records laws.