"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

Legislative tracking from home

idaho RANDY

When I started covering the Idaho Legislature in the mid-70s, there was literally no substitute for heading down to the Boise statehouse, picking up on the paperwork and watching the session unfold, not if you wanted to follow developments there at all closely.

No longer. You can track this 2014 session almost as well from your home as you could on the scene. (Well, not quite – there’s still something to be said for personal contact and interaction. But close.) Credit the legislature, over the years, with making it easy.

Back then, printed lists of committee agendas, bill status and bill copies didn’t emerge widely from the Statehouse. Now, that same material, and more, is on the legislature’s own website, at http://www.legislature.idaho.gov/. Go to that page and in the center, at the top of the list of links, is “Bill Center.” There you can find any piece of legislation by number (divided by House and Senate), if you happen to know it, or you can search by subject.

Click on the bill, and you get not only the bill text but the legislative history – where it is in the process, and how it got there – and the statement of purpose, which is a relatively plain-language brief description of what the bill is designed to do. Mostly, the SOPs are straightforward, though some are written as much to obscure as illuminate: So read them carefully. And there’s a fiscal note, if the legislation is expected to cost the state anything; sometimes the fiscal notes can become the subject of heated debate. Everyone with an interest in the legislature ought to prowl through the bill lists. And do read the bills of interest to you; they’re written in plain English (more or less), as either amendments or additions to the current law, or sometimes as repealers. Anything deleted has a strike-through on it, anything added is underlined. Sometimes the real intent is a little obscure, but that’s something legislators, lobbyists and reporters periodically struggle with too.

That alone is not a bad collection. The main thing missing, which some legislatures provide, is an alert letting you know when the next action on the measure is expected, if something has been scheduled. (Sometimes bills are sent to a committee and are, well, never heard from again.)

If you really want to bear down, you can look at the same thing legislators have been spending much of their time on these first few weeks of the session: Administrative rules. Legislators review them, and can kill them, during sessions, and there’s even a proposal to lock that role into the state constitution. (I think the state did just fine in the years before 1995 when legislators reviewed the rules simply when someone had an objection to one, but we’d be talking about the legislative giving up authority now.) Those rule books are all on line.

Reporters and everyone else used to rely on printed agendas for floor and committee action. They’re all posted online, and in the main reliably. And you can read the “progress report,” the number of bills and other measures introduced and passed this session compared to this point in the last five sessions. (This year, so far, they’re introducing more than last year but fewer than the years before.)

And then there’s watching the action. You can go to to the Idaho Public Television page www.idahoptv.org/insession/leg.cfm to watch the Senate or House floor action. Not all of the committee meetings are video streamed but many of them are, in the Lincoln Auditorium, the budget committee room and a House hearing room.

Read the legislative reports from journalists; you can get more and faster that way than by peering through the official reports. But those official reports can broaden and deepen your grasp of what’s going on.

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