Doreen DelBianco unloaded her laptop, printer, extension cords, and surge protectors across the public hearing room as she explained that these are the tools she will need to bring to the Capitol everyday if a legislative task force gets rid of the daily documents and bill lists it prints for the public and lobbyists.
But DelBianco said she’s not worried about herself as much as she’s worried about her clients to be able to participate in public hearings. DelBianco is the program director for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. She said the documents Legislative Management is looking at reducing in an effort to shave $626,000 from its budget are the documents her clients refer to and need when they testify or speak to lawmakers.
Asking them to print them out when they’re coming up to testify because they can’t afford the co-pay for a prescription is unreasonable, DelBianco said.
Raphael Podolsky, who has been advocating for his clients at the Capitol since the 1970s, said he thinks it’s a “terrible mistake” to discontinue the transcription of committee public hearings.
He said public hearing transcripts are extremely important when the courts look at legislative intent. As the legislature begins to rely more often on consent calendars and less on debate in both chambers, the public hearing transcripts are even more important than they were a few years ago.
He said trying to put hours and hours of audio online just doesn’t work because “there’s no way to search a recorded tape.”
Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford told the task force Thursday that over the past three years the House has moved to using consent calendars which shorten the debate on the floor and eliminating public hearing transcripts would be a step backward.
He said it would also lessen the strength of the legislature as an equal branch of government because public hearings are often the only time lawmakers have to explain bills that could be challenged at a later date in court.
“This is part of our ability to say what a bill means,” McCluskey said. “If we don’t the transcripts available to the court then in fact the executive branch is going to be better able to say what they believe the legislation that we pass means. The legislative transcripts empower us to say what a bill means.”
“I just think on so many levels this would be a historic blunder to go forward with this,” he added.
He said there are other printing costs the legislature should look at reducing. He said he’d be happy to give up his personal copies of the blue books in order to save the transcripts and would also be open to reducing the $582,000 spent on weekly and bi-annual district wide mailers lawmakers send to their constituents.
He said there currently is no district wide email program that allows lawmakers to send electronic mail to their constituents so they get to send a mailer to 500 households a week and two district wide mailings a year. He said he communicates electronically with constituents that email him, but has no way of sending out emails to his district. He said there’s no such database for lawmakers to use.
Valicia Harmon, counsel with the Freedom of Information Commission, warned that the state may not actually save money by deciding not to transcribe public hearings. She said even if the public hearing is available in an audio format, if a indigent person requests that file on paper, the state agency may bare the burden of transcribing it in a timely fashion for that individual.
She said all documents, including the bills and lists of bills—which currently don’t exist online—must be posted in a timely fashion.
“If legislative documents are generally only available electronically, question concerning promptness arise and have to be considered,” Harmon said. “Again, in theory one would think that electronic access would mean simultaneously or instantaneous access, but access to electronic public records requires two critical factors to be considered. The first the record must actually be posted online in a timely fashion. The second is that the person seeking to access the record must have a way to do so they must have a computer.”
The task force didn’t reach any conclusions at its meeting following Thursday’s public hearing, but Sen. Joseph Crisco of Woodbridge reiterated that “everything is on the table.”
The task force will meet again in early December to begin to finalize its recommendations.