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Measure hailed as win for open government

Measure hailed as win for open government

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AUSTIN - Texans would be able to see how individual lawmakers vote on final passage of state legislation under a proposal the Texas House approved Tuesday, though some critics said the measure doesn't go far enough.

House rules state that final votes on bills be recorded. But the proposed state constitutional amendment the House adopted 142-0 would cement that requirement for both the House and Senate for non-ceremonial items.

"This is your open-record vote, your open-government vote, for the session," said Republican Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas as he presented the proposed amendment.

The Senate would still have to approve the proposal, then it would go before the state's voters in November before becoming part of the constitution.

Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, was among the legislators who said the measure didn't do enough because it only requires recorded votes on final passage, not preliminary passage, which is when most debate occurs and amendments are made to bills. Veasey described that as "the real meat and potatoes of any debate that we have."

For example, he said, when the House debated a utility deregulation bill that affected TXU Corp., newspapers wrote their main stories on the lengthy debate that occurred before preliminary passage, not the next day's quicker final passage.

"It seems a little bit ceremonial, what you are doing," Veasey said, though he later voted for the measure. "Everything that we do here needs to be recorded."

Branch and other supporters noted that his proposal is what news industry representatives have sought.

"I think this is the right balance," Branch said. He called much of the Legislature's actions "insider baseball" and said that, in the end, Texans mainly want to know about votes on what becomes law.

"It's like a final paper," he said. "Grade me on my final paper."

He said he hopes news organizations publish more of the Legislature's final votes if the amendment is adopted.

The Texas Daily Newspaper Association views the proposed constitutional amendment as a positive compromise and a victory for open government, said Ken Whalen, executive vice president of the association.

If the proposal is approved by Texas voters, "there will be a guarantee that there will be at least one record vote on every substantive piece of legislation," he said.

Whalen said it would have been much more difficult to pass a requirement that all debate for preliminary passage of bills get recorded votes. He said he was pleased that Tuesday's proposal passed unanimously.

Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick said the amendment would serve the public well as Texans seek to find out how their legislators voted.

He said though most debate occurs before preliminary passage, controversial items during that debate are typically already decided by a recorded vote because even one legislator can request it under House rules. The final vote is what counts most, he added.

"Final passage is the vote that puts the bill into effect. It's really the end vote," Craddick said.

Craddick noted that news media groups that have championed the recorded vote legislation for more than two years have asked for recorded votes on final passage of bills. And, he said, since individual votes are routinely recorded on final passage now, he believes legislators are engaging in more debate at that point.

"They're more aware, I think, what they're voting on," he said.

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