The National Conference of State Legislatures provides an on-line resource for locating state legislation. That's their purpose for OnTheIssues, but their overall mission is to:
- Improve the quality and effectiveness of state legislatures.
- Promote policy innovation and communication among state legislatures.
- Ensure state legislatures a strong, cohesive voice in the federal system.
Their purpose isn't really to provide an on-line resource for locating state legislation -- so we'll use this space to complain that it SHOULD be their purpose!
OnTheIssues excerpts state legislation when state legislators run for Governor or Senator, or when they first win a House seat. So we've read a lot of state legislation websites. And they are AWFUL. Some of the standard problems include:
- They only post "House Journals" and "Senate Journals," which say things like "A vote was taken on bill H.1; the vote was 25-15". Journals tell you ABOUT the vote, without telling you WHY they voted. At the federal level, the voting records are accompanied by the "Congressional Record," which includes floor debates on each legislation. With that resource, OnTheIssues can provide pro & con statements -- at the state level it's challenging.
- Some states provide the full bill text. But even that is insufficient in many cases, especially for funding bills (which are often the most decisive legislation of the year). A funding bill will say things like this: "Change line item 117 paragraph B subparagraph 2 from $1 million to $10 million." Yes, online bill text provides what the bill SAYS, but it doesn't provide what it MEANS. At the federal less, the Congressional Research Service summary is provided that explains the purpose of the bill.
- Even with the state equivalent of the Congressional Record, readers would still have to plow through things like "cloture votes" (a vote to end debate and move to a vote); "tabling votes" (to "table" a bill means to kill it); and "referral votes" (to refer a bill to committee MIGHT mean killing it, or might not). If legislatures actually wanted their votes to be understood, they would use plain English.
That list of shortcomings makes us suspect a darker truth: That legislators don't want their constituents to know their voting records. Here at OnTheIssues, we've been at this a long time, and we are well beyond the suspicion level: we hereby accuse state legislators of hiding their voting records from their constituents. And they SHOULD tell their constituents their voting records. And the NCSL should promote that.
Alas, the NCSL has taken only the first step. It's a useful step: to help votes find state legislative records online. On our State Legislation summary page, OnTheIssues provides links to all 50 states' online voting records -- but each one is different and requires practice to navigate them -- NCSL provides a standard interface by bill number. Itís a useful step, but only a small first step.