By Benita M. Dodd
March 13-19 is Sunshine Week, the annual nationwide celebration of government transparency and access to public information. It’s come just in time to reinforce the need for increased transparency under the Gold Dome to empower more Georgia citizens.
Georgia House and Senate floor sessions have been broadcast live over the Internet since 2003. This is hugely beneficial because average Georgians are able to follow legislation online, instead of having to trek over in person to the State Capitol. Granted, it does not provide as much access as the special interests, activists and lobbyists who are present (and often behind the scenes, too) at the Capitol to follow and influence debate, discussion and voting. Still, it helps voters to reach out and alert senators if there is a troubling issue with legislation.
It helps because it broadens the audience, hence civic engagement, and increases statewide expertise. Educated voters, meanwhile, are able to discern bluff and bluster and identify good policy versus petty politics or partisanship.
Since 2006, House committee meetings have been broadcast as well. Ten years later, unfortunately, there is still no opportunity for Georgians across the state to follow a committee discussion in Senate conference rooms. The Senate broadcasts none of its committee hearings; you have to turn up at the Capitol to view them.
Just this week, the Foundation reported on how legislators voted to ban an innovative, affordable eye care option. Legislation raced through the House and a Senate committee before most were aware of the ramifications: that it stifled innovation, made Georgia the first state to outlaw an opportunity available in 46 other states, and specifically targeted a single company that offers online eye refraction (exams): Opternative.
“We were not told anything by the other side and they did not lobby us,” one senator said after HB 775 passed the Senate. “Innovation was not discussed and the vote was based on the info we had in front of us. No citizens emailed me at all.”
Had Georgians been able to follow the Senate committee, Opternative’s patients might have been able to testify and inform committee members and Senators before it got to the floor.
To be fair, Georgia’s representatives and senators are part-time and currently racing through a 40-day session as quickly as possible in order to start campaigning for election. They can’t be expected to know everything; most would gladly accept any expertise and help offered on the myriad issues they must tackle.
The outcome of HB 775 is just the latest example that the lawmaking process deserves a closer watch.
The argument 10 years ago was that the Senate could not afford the cameras. That argument is worn out; equipment is far cheaper than the $350,000 cost of the House camera setup a decade ago. It’s past time for the Senate to drag its committees into the 21st century.
When he announced the House plan, then-House Speaker Glenn Richardson proudly pointed out, “I believe the Information Age has finally come to the House of Representatives.”
This Sunshine Week, it’s become clear: It’s time for the Information Age to come to the Senate — to inform Georgia’s voters.
View the Foundation’s March 2015 Sunshine Week commentary here.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (March 17, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.