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Legislature makes strides toward transparency, but more work is needed

Legislature makes strides toward transparency, but more work is needed

Wayne Hoffman
April 15, 2013

Would you please indulge my inner nerd for just a moment before I get to this week’s topic? Thank you: In an episode of the original Star Trek series, Kirk and Spock beam to a planet with a mystical portal through time. The two gaze in bewilderment upon the gateway as sepia tone images of the past race by, after which Spock says, “I am a fool. My tricorder is capable of recording even at this speed. I’ve missed taping centuries of living history” never before witnessed by man.

Now to make 1960s sci-fi relevant to politics—indeed, Idaho politics—today: State lawmakers performed an immense public service this winter by finally agreeing to save all the recordings of legislative floor debates and committee actions for posterity. Up until this session, all recordings were deleted after five days.

Now, by rule, a permanent video record will be made. The nerd in me, who enjoys a classic Star Trek episode while reading old copies of Idaho Session Laws for fun, really wishes it were possible to watch floor debates from days gone by, for both the issues and the oratory, the personalities and the pageantry.

In November, when legislative leadership refused to make a video archive of legislative proceedings, the Idaho Freedom Foundation decided to force the Legislature’s hand by making our own archive and putting the video on our website. The outcome is a spectacular change in process and transparency. And the fact that lawmakers abandoned an attempt to copyright the videos made the victory much more satisfying.

We’re not done pushing for reforms, however. While it is nice that a video record is available for the public’s use, getting access to the official record takes too much work. To obtain a copy of the recording of their legislators in action, Idaho citizens must fill out written request forms and promise never to use said video for political purposes.

A better plan, rejected by legislative leaders late last year, would be to have the floor sessions downloadable for use without having to go through a gatekeeper or fill out paperwork.

Additionally, in deciding to make video archiving a permanent part of the legislative process, lawmakers passed a rule that says the video record is not a substitute for the written journal of legislative action. The reason for this is simple: The Idaho Constitution requires that each bill be read at length, section by section, before being subject to action. Lawmakers almost never do that.

Instead, a legislator will typically ask the unanimous consent of his or her colleagues to dispense with the full and complete reading, instructing “that the journal show (the bill) had been read at length section by section” before being considered. In other words, the journal, the official legislative record of the House and of the Senate, says each bill underwent its constitutionally required full reading. In reality, this generally does not happen. The journal is a complete fabrication of actual events, an insult to history itself.

But now, a permanent video record exists of this legislative cheat, giving rise to the question of how long lawmakers can pretend they complied with the constitutionally required bill readings when they haven’t.

The Legislature is a microcosm, where the topics of the day are debated and decided by people we elect to office. That the record of these debates will continue to exist 5, 10, 20 and 50 years from now is a triumph. What’s next is for legislators to outdo themselves by making the videos easily accessible and making sure the written record accurately reflects events as they transpired.

Idaho Freedom Foundation
802 W. Bannock Street, Suite 405, Boise, Idaho 83702
p 208.258.2280 | e [email protected]
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