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Online plans for hearings

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland residents interested in how the legislative sausage is made may soon have more options to follow bills in the General Assembly under a number of proposed changes to the rules and laws guiding the House of Delegates and Senate.

Del. Michael Hough, R-Frederick and Washington, is proposing a law that would require the House and Senate to broadcast audio and video of all floor and committee proceedings. The House current broadcasts video of all hearings via cameras like this one installed in an older committee room. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

The Senate could vote as early as Tuesday on rule changes affecting the streaming of committee hearings and voting sessions. In the House of Delegates, Republicans are calling for more transparency in the legislative process through a bill that would require committee voting sessions to be live streamed and that House and Senate floor sessions be broadcast online with video.

“We’re catching up with today’s technology,” said Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County and chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee.

The committee voted last week to codify the current practice of live streaming audio of Senate committee hearings. The rule makes it clear that broadcasting those hearings is a requirement.

A second change gives committee chairs the discretion to broadcast voting sessions via the Internet — a practice that has only been done once.

Many legislators have opposed the idea, which has been championed by Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard, for the last two years, because they are afraid committee members will be less likely to engage in open discussion of policies and laws if they know their words are recorded.

This year, Kittleman proposed a rule change that would require all voting sessions to be streamed and recorded.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert and Prince George’s, opposed the idea last year.

Last year, Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, used his discretion as a chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to live stream the voting session on a controversial bill that strengthened gun laws in Maryland. It was the first time such a session had been broadcast live.

Afterward, Frosh said he thought the broadcast went well but said he felt it was best used sparingly.

Miller disagreed and criticized the effort. But in a reversal this year, the Senate president said he believes that the heads of the four standing Senate committees have the authority to broadcast the voting sessions even though that provision is not contained in the Senate rules.

The requirement to broadcast standing committee hearings is also not contained in the current rules, even though such broadcasts have been the standard for years.

This year, Miller proposed the two amendments to Kittleman’s rule changes that the Senate Rules Committee ultimately adopted.

Del. Michael J. Hough, R-Frederick and Washington, hopes to take the legislature to another level of transparency by introducing a bill that would require both the House and Senate to live stream audio and video of committee and voting sessions as well as all floor sessions.

The House currently broadcasts audio and video of all committee hearings but not voting or floor sessions.

“Transparency is a good thing,” Hough said.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said the realities of tight state budgets will likely prevent the adoption of the legal mandate Hough’s bill creates.

“It’s not a question where we don’t want people to have the opportunity to view the legislative process,” Busch said. “If [Hough] wants to find a funding source and vote for the revenue, maybe we can do it.”

Catching up with the times also raises concerns that did not present themselves to legislatures that met before the proliferation of smartphones, which can shoot photographs and video and transmit images in seconds via social media.

“We’ve been discussing this because it was an issue in the last election,” Busch said.

Busch is proposing a change to the House rules that would restrict the taking of photographs, video or other recordings in the chamber without the express permission of the speaker.

“I think I have the latitude as the speaker to ask the members not to do that,” Busch said.

The language of the rule is identical to one that has existed in the Senate for at least 15 years. It’s broadly written, but Busch said it would not be applied to visitors in the public galleries or credentialed reporters and photographers on the floor.

The change was prompted by two election-year incidents in 2010 involving Delegates Saqib Ali, D-Montgomery, and Richard A. Sossi, R-Upper Shore. Both Ali and Sossi were photographed by political rivals while sleeping during House floor sessions.

“I think the floor of the House should be a safe place for them to do their work,” Busch said.

Del. Nicholaus R. Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, said the rule raises concerns about the restriction of information.

“We think there should be the full ability to take photographs and video on the floor — and under this rule, if [the speaker] doesn’t specifically allow it, it’s prohibited,” Kipke said. “It’s in direct opposition to transparency and a free and open government.”