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Is Maryland Becoming the Open Government State?

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, May 26 2011

Maryland's state legislature will gain a joint committee on transparency and open government this summer, MarylandReporter.com reports. (Via thedailyrecord.com)

Delegate Heather Mizeur, the lead sponsor of a bill just signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley that establishes the committee, told me Thursday that this builds on work done last year to improve the way the state legislature does business. Her previous push, the Maryland Open Government Act, gained broad support but did not make it through the state legislature when it was introduced in the last session. However, most of the goals in that legislation were accomplished through other means, such as eliminating a previous $800 fee to access real-time information about bill statuses, and making more hearings available online through live video and audio streams. (Now state Senate hearings have live audio streams, the state's lower house has live video streams, and the state Board of Public Works' meetings are also watchable live online.)

"I have suggested that we could use it as a way to make more transparent opportunities for contracting in the state and following where the tax dollars go in that scenario," Mizeur told me Thursday. "There's a whole range of initiatives that we can take on. I'm excited about the opportunity."

What's still up in the air is how the state would pay for these improvements — but there's an argument to be made that using IT for better reporting and efficiency will save money, and another that open-source tools offer the opportunity to do transparency work on a minimal budget.

"What I hold in my back pocket is increasing registration fees for lobbyists," Mizeur told me, "because all the technology that we're improving ... will improve their ability to do their job."

It would also make it easier for average people to stay informed and maybe lobby on their own behalf, either by using an improved state legislature website to follow hearings and votes in real time or by using other tools like Opengovernment.org*. Third-party sites have an easier time presenting data on things like bills and committees to users when states offer them up in standardized formats.

She should know — formerly Sen. John Kerry's policy director, her company, Mizeur Group, is a strategic communications firm that lobbies on behalf of the National Association of Community Health Centers, the Visiting Nurses Association of America, and the National Council of Aging, among others. ("I don’t do ANY lobbying in Maryland for Maryland clients so my transparency work and my interest in increasing lobbying fees to improve the state website has nothing to do with my private sector life," she clarified in an email.)

This committee joins other joint committees like ones on fiscal relationships; pensions; children, youth and families; management of public funds; and legislative ethics. In short, it institutionalizes the work of a state legislature transforming itself into a more open and transparent body through rules and bills. And Mizeur would not be the only champion of open government in Annapolis. In addition to the legislators who co-sponsored the bill establishing the committee, O'Malley, the governor, has embraced improving government through technology. He also appointed a state chief innovation officer, Bryan Sivak, who is also well known among the national cadre of government staffers deploying new technology solutions to solve old problems. Sivak's mandate in Maryland, writ large, is to help other cabinet-level staff there come up with new and better ways of doing things. Sivak tells me in an email he looks forward to working with Mizeur going forward.

Mizeur anticipates the new joint committee will be selected soon and hopes to serve on it. If she does, she might be able to testify firsthand to the need for the state to improve its electronic recordkeeping: In the course of fact-checking for this article, I ran across state records that said her company was forfeited in 2010 for failure to file a 2009 property return — but Mizeur says the company, herself and her spouse are completely up to speed on their taxes. (Update: To clarify, they were online-only records that listed no specific penalties paid or owed by Mizeur anywhere, and county property records available online likewise indicate she owes no taxes — so despite this listing of "forfeit," every other record available online indicates that Mizeur is right and the state is wrong. She says she's looking in to getting hard-copy proof as well.)

* OpenGovernment.org is a joint project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation, where PdF co-founders Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisors.