There are phrases that get repeated by rote here in the Senate, things we say over and over, sometimes without thinking. One gets used to things that are repeated, pervasive, or that are considered commonplace in a culture, that elsewhere might be odd or questionable. First, let’s consider some of the things we say.
One common phrase I have now memorized is used to interrupt the secretary as she reads the bill for the third time. All bills are required to be read three times before a vote. The first reading is dispensed with, as is the second and on the third reading the floor sponsor stands and interrupts the secretary to say:
I ask unanimous consent that further reading of _____ be dispensed with and the journal show that it has been read a third time at length, section by section and placed before the senate for final consideration.
With no objection, the sponsor may proceed to give his or her presentation of the bill. This makes things go faster. Last year, we Democrats objected and required that the Luna Bills be read at length the third time. This was proper, just not usual. The House did the same late in the session to protest that their voice wasn’t being heard. We could only slow things down with such a procedural objection. After the reading, the vote is still the same.
Another phrase that gets repeated by rote is when a Senator stands to declare a conflict:
Mr. President under senate rule 39H I hereby declare my conflict of interest in this issue but my intention to vote.
Senate rules require that you declare publicly or in writing your conflict. There is no requirement that the written declaration be recorded. This rule is supposed to maintain the honor of the body of the Senate so our deliberations can be perceived as open in the eyes of the public whom we represent.
So now lets consider rules about what we do. We also have sunshine laws that limit political contributions and require they be reported. We have decided in statute that political contributions are public, so citizens can examine the records and consider if elected officials are representing them, not the highest bidder.
This session we have considered two laws that have directed money to two privately held corporations. Neither were direct transfers of taxpayer dollars. One required money from convicted offenders goes to a company that maintained a public data base on these offenders. The other sent money from the manufacturers of pseudoephedrine to this same data base to collate information on who was buying this substance that can be used to manufacture methamphetamine. Law enforcement, the courts, victims and corrections can use this first data base to track the status of the convict. The second can be used by pharmacies and law enforcement to limit or investigate excessive or illicit drug purchases. Both of these efforts seem laudable and serve the public good.
But here’s the twist. Since these companies are privately held we cannot know who is getting the benefit of this contract. Nor can we know if they are contributing to legislators making these decisions. Private corporations have no obligation to share the identity of their shareholders.
Another program the state was involved in 4-5 years ago did send taxpayer dollars to a private corporation. The state promoted a Health Information Data Exchange that was supposed to allow hospitals and clinics to pass information between each other. This program got both federal and state money, though it is now privately funded. The company that got the contract is again privately held, and thus obscure.
I am suspicious by nature and I always wonder about motivation. When there is transparency I am reassured. In this case, I cannot know the relationships. And the more I see of these marble hallways and entwined relationships, the more I think we should know where our taxpayer money goes. We shouldn’t just do these things by rote.