Minnesota is just one of five states where at least one legislative body doesn’t release vote data in an open format.
(TNS) -- Minnesota’s state Senate remains mired in the last century on data transparency. Will its new Republican majority bring it into the present?
At issue is a simple but fundamental question for a legislative body: how easily can the public see how its legislators voted?
The Minnesota House of Representatives has for years published vote data in an open format. Each roll call vote in the House has a web page listing how each legislator voted that can be easily exported or shared online.
But the Senate just publishes its daily “journals”: long documents listing votes, bill texts and other action taken by the Senate on a particular day. It’s the same format the Senate has used for decades; the only concession to modern technology is the documents are now published online in Adobe PDF format instead of just printed on paper.
Minnesota is just one of five states where at least one legislative body doesn’t release vote data in an open format. The Sunlight Foundation’s 2013 Open Legislative Data Report Card gave Minnesota a C grade for openness and specifically criticized the unavailable Senate data as a reason.
This summer, the Pioneer Press used the House’s open vote data to estimate each lawmaker’s partisanship and ideology. It wasn’t able to do the same for the Senate because of its limited vote publishing.
At the time, a spokesperson for the Senate’s DFL majority said they had been unaware the Senate was lagging in data transparency and promised to explore software upgrades to make its votes as accessible as the House’s.
“Technology has quickly evolved and the information you’ve shared is a clear indication we should to take a closer look at how we publish our information,” said Amelia Cerling, a spokeswoman for the Senate DFL.
But this month, Cerling said little got done over the past six months. The Senate reached out to the National Conference of State Legislatures for “advice and guidance on how to improve” but did no more.
“While our office is certainly interested in improving, at this time, we have not directed major changes because we have had a number of staff on leave since your initial communication,” Cerling said in a statement.
On Nov. 8, Minnesota voters switched control of the Senate from the DFL to the Republican Party.
“Pulling together a working group to move this forward will now be the responsibility of Sen. (Paul) Gazelka and his staff,” Cerling said, referring to the newly elected Republican Senate Majority Leader from Nisswa.
Gazelka was unavailable for comment, but his staff referred the Pioneer Press to Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. Nelson said the new Republican Senate majority is interested in opening up its votes.
“I would be very supportive of getting into the 21st century,” Nelson said. “I think we should have accountability and transparency … by making sure that legislators’ votes are readily available to the public.”
Adopting a more open system won’t take place overnight even if senators decide to do it. It would require a formal vote by the Senate Rules Committee to adopt and work by programmers to implement.
Nelson said the Senate Republicans will explore other open government changes, including trying to end last-minute lawmaking that contributed to the 2016 Legislature missing its deadline to pass several key bills.
House members are interested in that as well. Rep. Jim Knoblach, the powerful chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he wants to make the Legislature agree how much money to spend in the state’s budget weeks before those targets are traditionally set.
©2016 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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