Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Trumping State Law

The Journal Sentinel is fronting a story today that deals with the right of state legislators to keep draft legislation from the public until it's formally introduced.

According to lawmakers, this is necessary to encourage legislative innovation. What a crock.

Don't get me wrong, I can see instances where it would be beneficial to keep truly bold legislation private until all the kinks have been worked out. If word of an idea gets out early before that idea is fully developed, it could unjustifiably damage that idea in the public eye.

But the reverse is also true. If draft legislation is allowed to remain a secret until introduction, it gives its sponsors the chance to fish the details of the proposal around to friendly lobby groups (who subsequently pay for access with their campaign donations) for months before the legislation is made public. This essentially opens the door for the creation of a one-sided PR machine that can be very hard to combat once the legislation is publicly released.

It seems the more likely of those two scenarios is the latter. To be sure, after following the legislature fairly closely last session, I can't recall a single piece of legislation that was so bold that lobbyists needed to see it in draft form, while the public could not.

A reasonable compromise could be formulated from all this. It would be fair to allow legislators the right to share draft legislation with experts in a particular field, but those experts should not be affiliated in any way with a lobby group. As soon as a registered lobby group enters the fray, the legislation should be made public.

I have no doubt legislators would find a way to work this kind of setup to their advantage, but it's better than the current arrangement that allows them to go directly to lobbyists with any and all draft legislation before sharing it with the public.

In the end, any talk of reasonable compromise is for not. The current setup will prevail, at least for the next four years. JB Van Hollen will likely drop the case when he takes over the AG post tomorrow.

According to the JS article, state law currently allows legislators to keep legislation private, but once they share it with outsiders, then they are supposed to release it publicly. State legislators argue, however, that they don't need to obey this law because it's trumped by legislative rules that allow lawmakers to go to third parties with proposals before the public.

It seems Van Hollen agrees. And I'm sure he and others could come up with a convoluted legalese-laden justification for why. I still say it's a crock. To me, it's nothing more than a justification for why lawmakers don't need to follow the law and why lobbyists should have more input on crafting legislation than the public.

I'm sure there are some legislators who do use the existing setup to legitimately consult with experts. But the fact that some do -- or even can -- use it for underhanded purposes pollutes the entire system.

As a final note, what's with the JS citing the cost of the pending suits against state legislators on this issue? It didn't do this once, but twice -- including in the opening line of the article. What importance did it serve, aside from feeding perfectly into the talking points of Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford) -- a defendant in the case -- who argues that Lautenschlager is just out spending tax dollars with this suit?

Why didn't the JS bother to tally the cost in tax dollars of all the draft legislation that gets shared with lobbyists before the taxpayers? Just how much did it cost for Gunderson and his co-defendant Dave Zien to cater state business to the wishes of the NRA before involving the people in that business?

If anything, you'd think the biggest daily in the state would be on the side of open public records. That said, I suppose I should be commending the JS for being so unbias toward its own interests that it actually slanted the story the other way.


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