Distracted (policy) drivers?

Members of Legislative Council have spent a good portion of the Montana Legislature’s interim discussing potential guidelines for one of the more routine aspects of life in the state capitol: use of electronic devices during the legislative session. As stated in the July issue of The Interim newsletter, there’s growing concern that lawmakers are paying more attention to laptops and cellphones than the public.

It’s a tricky topic to tackle, says Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division. The ways individual legislators use electronic devices can vary widely, from fact-checking to constituent correspondence. Some people may think a legislator is ignoring public testimony during a committee meeting, when that legislator is actually just taking notes.

“It’s the legislature struggling with how to use technology appropriately, let the public know that they’re here listening to them—how to balance those two things,” Fox says.

According to Rep. Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, this isn’t a new conversation at the legislature. There have been informal discussions about potential problems with electronic device use over several bienniums. But this go-around, Legislative Council decided to take on the task of drafting formal guidelines for such behavior.

“The committee hearings and floor sessions and that kind of thing, there has been some discussion of to what extent is that fitting, does it cause problems,” says Hunter, who serves as vice-chair on Legislative Council. “Some people believe that it does, others believe that it doesn’t.”

The discussion so far has touched on the appropriateness of using social media during legislative proceedings and what material viewed by a lawmaker is considered public record. Clarifying the latter question, Hunter says, will probably constitute “the bulk of what we write in terms of guidance.” There are those who, in the course of the council’s meetings, have questioned whether correspondence with constituents by text or email gives some more access to the ears of lawmakers than other members of the public.

“But there are others—and I think they have valid points—that say the communication with constituents over the matters they’re discussing is part of their role as a legislator,” Hunter says.

Legislative Council has appointed a rules subcommittee to compose draft guidelines in advance of the 2015 session. Hunter says that process is just beginning, but shouldn’t take long. Meanwhile, Fox has surveyed legislators to gather more information and opinions on the issue.

“That survey’s not coming up with any consensus whatsoever,” she says.

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