Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Will state Senate stand in way of truly open conference committee process?

It was a smart move by Speaker Kris Steele when he got the House to pass a rule opening up House conference committee meetings. But the next few weeks will demonstrate how well the new openness works.

The Senate has not passed such a rule calling for openness in conference committee meetings. Therefore, the public will not be privy to what happens when bills go to Senate conference committees.

A joint conference committee has both House and Senate members who need to approve a measure before it goes to the full House and Senate.

So how will they do this? How can the House meet in the open and the Senate not abide by the same rule?

It appears the result will be that only half the process will be open to the public, that is the activity on the House side.

"Conference committees were previously closed meetings," Steele's communications director John Estus noted Wednesday. "In reality, the meetings often never occurred. Votes were taken instead via signature."

The Senate will apparently continue conducting its conference committee deal-making in closed session.

A House conference committee met publicly last Wednesday for the first time and approved a bill to prohibit people younger than 18 from being featured in state lottery advertisements.

Steele heralded the House action in a press release, stating, "Today's meeting was a landmark step in the House's effort to increase transparency."

But no senators were present. So the public may never be privy to discussion and negotations in Senate conference committee meetings.

Under the House rules:
  • All meetings of standing conference committees shall be open to the public, subject to the authority of the chairperson to maintain order and decorum. (Rule 7.15)
  • All standing conference committees shall provide reasonable, public notice of a meeting. (Rule 7.16)
    • The notice shall state the date, time and place of a meeting.
    • The notice shall include a listing and sufficient title for identification of the bills to be considered by the standing conference committee holding the meeting.
  • Standing conference committees shall meet at the call of the chairperson within the dates, times and locations designated by the Speaker. (Rule 7.17)
    • No standing conference committee shall sit during a floor session of the House without special leave from the Speaker.
  • All votes cast in standing conference committees shall be conducted in open, public meetings. (Rule 7.18)
    • In a standing conference committee, only the vote to recommend adoption of the conference committee report shall be recorded.
Mick Hinton
Freelance Journalist
FOI Oklahoma Inc. Member

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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