HARTFORD, CT — Weeks after defending a decision to eliminate transcription of the legislature’s public hearings some legislative leaders were beginning to have a change of heart.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Monday that it’s their intention within “available appropriations” to continue to offer the public hearing transcripts, but House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and Senate Republican President Len Fasano still weren’t convinced.
The chiefs of staff for all four legislative leaders met Tuesday, but were unable to reach a conclusion on whether to save the transcripts.
All four caucuses would need to agree.
Klarides said right now they have to worry about funding programs for the “elderly, children, special needs.” She said she can’t “prioritize transcripts being printed for right now.” She said she’s open to the conversation, but is worried about other potential budgetary cuts.
“Right now, I just don’t think it’s something we have the luxury of spending money on,” Klarides said.
Fasano said Tuesday that he’s still “mystified as to the real issue here.”
He said he believes it’s more important to have the committee meetings, where lawmakers are voting on bills, transcribed. He said if someone wants a copy of the audio of a public hearing they will still be provided one for free. He said it’s just an awful lot of money to be spending for documents that may never be touched.
It costs the Office of Legislative Management $100,000 a year to transcribe public hearings, but open government advocates say that’s a small price to pay for such an important service.
A coalition of advocates were trying to educate lawmakers Monday in an effort to save the service.
A handout they were giving lawmakers says that the state library identified 750 court decisions that have cited public hearing transcripts.
Raphael Podolsky of Connecticut Legal Services, Inc. said the transcripts are crucial to the third branch of government trying to figure out legislative intent.
They also reveal the purpose behind the bill, the problem addressing it, and the reasons for changes to the bill.
The Office of Legislative Management said it would offer an audio recording of a hearing for free upon request, but such recordings can’t be searched instantaneously.
Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, said an audio recording alone also may not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Some would argue that everyone who testifies is asked to submit written testimony, which is then published online.
But advocates argue that “filed written testimony is not a satisfactory substitute for transcripts. It omits the question-and-answer exchanges that may be critical to legislative history. Actual witness testimony sometimes varies significantly from written testimony. Committees often ask witnesses not to read their testimony but to tell them what is most important.”
Michael Savino, the president of the Connecticut Council on the Freedom of Information, said public hearings are a critical part of our democratic lawmaking process, and “we should continue taking reasonable steps to document them.”
He said the broad coalition of advocates coming together to try and save them should “demonstrate the value of these records in ensuring both transparency and a full understanding of legislative history.”
Many rank-and-file lawmakers were unaware of the proposed change, but those who were believed it should be reversed.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, who sits on more committees than any other senator, said he thinks the public hearing transcripts are crucial to the public’s understanding of what happens at the state Capitol where important public policy decisions are being made.
“This is government and we have a huge impact,” Winfield said. “It’s important to be able to go back and find out how decisions were made.”
Rep. Roland Lemar, D-New Haven, who co-chairs the Planning and Development Committee, said the public hearing transcripts provide valuable information and background to people outside of the building.
“We might have overlooked their importance to those outside the building,” Lemar said.
He said lawmakers don’t use them for their research so it was perhaps seen as something that could easily be cut from the budget.