Oct 4, 2007

Senate Democrats introduce resolution to stop secret votes and harassment of media

LANSING – The flap over the vote for the sales tax increase in the wee hours Monday morning has led Senate Democrats to introduce Senate Resolution 114 Thursday to amend the Senate Standing Rules to ensure there are no secret votes.

The trouble began around 3 a.m. Monday when the Senate was voting to give immediate effect to House Bill 5198. The bill to tax certain services had passed earlier with a 19-19 tie broken by Lt. Gov. John Cherry. Since the state government had been shut down at midnight, Cherry called for a vote to give the bill immediate effect instead the normal procedure that says a bill only takes effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

Immediate effect takes a two-thirds vote or approval by 26 Senators. However, those votes are not recorded in the Senate journal, and a photographer from the Senate Democratic Caucus was taking photos of the board. A number of Senate Republicans objected to that, and Sen. Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, then ordered all Senate staff off the floor.

Subscription only Gongwer reported, “In the process a news photographer began shooting the voting board - Senate rules forbid photographing a non-roll call vote - and several senators shouted the photographer should be thrown off and one demanded his tape be confiscated. A sergeant stood with the photographer while that portion of the tape was erased.” However, it cannot be verified if that incident actually took place.

Senate Republican leadership says the Senate rules bar the media from taking photos of the vote board during unrecorded votes. In an email response Carol Viventi, the Secretary of the Senate, said “Consequently, no one, media included can take pictures of the board when it is an unrecorded vote.” But that’s news to some regular media that cover the Capitol on a regular basis. Phillip Hendricks, the news director at Lansing TV station WLNS, said he has never heard of that rule.

“I don’t know of any policy that prohibits us filming anything,” he said. “We have never had a problem, and we film what ever we want.”

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, said the caucus photographer was shooting the board at his request, and he and the caucus attorney checked for any written policy that prohibited staff from shooting photos of the board. He said any change in Senate rules must be approved by a vote of the full Senate. Schauer said he received a letter from Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in response to what rules were used to stop the board from being photographed that cited a policy Schauer said he cannot find, and he also said he cited “long-standing custom and usage” as the precedent for banning visual recording of the vote board for non-record votes. Schauer said the so-called long-standing custom violates both the spirit of the Open Meetings Act and the Constitution.

“We have no right as Senators to cast votes in secret,” Schauer said. “I will always error on the side of openness.”

The resolution will amend the standing rules to allow no secret votes, and to allow the press, public and staff to photograph the board at any point in the Senate session.

“Our First Amendment is clear, our Constitution is clear, our rules are clear - the public has a right to know how we represent them in this chamber,” Schauer said in a press release. “The resolution we offer today should not even be necessary, but it will once and for all end any perception that there are secret votes in this Senate.”


Chet said...

I agree with you on this one, but would expand it. There should be no "voice votes" and "unrecorded votes" whatsoever, and the Democratically-controlled House has been guilty of using secret voting processes, notably to table the roll-call vote on the amendment/bill by Marty Knollenberg to end lifetime benefits for legislators starting with HIS OWN CLASS (Robert Dean's bill was only to end lifetime benefits for future legislators, and although I'll give him credit for at least going that far everyone should have been on record voting for whether they would apply the rule to themselves, and unfortunately both bills ended up stalled). And there's not one example of this -- it happens all the time, with the party in control manipulating the votes or whether there even are votes, to its advantage. Let's end it from both sides. No one has clean hands on this and Schauer knows that - although I agree him on the particular point he has made.

Anonymous said...

I do not know where I come down on this issue. I have heard about this incident from a few friends who work inside the beltway and this seems to be the best coverage I have read.

The only thing that might need to be clarified is that I thought Schauer denied photos were being taken of the board when he was caught on the floor. Is that not true? Because your quotes seem to indicate he ordered the photos be taken.

Communications guru said...

Thank you for those kind words. If Sen. Schauer denied photos had been taken I am not aware of it. The statement he made on the Senate floor said the photographer was there at his invitation to shoot the board, among other things. Whether the photographer actually shot the board I have no idea. I certainly hope they did. The larger issue is the censorship and secret votes. Sen. Bishop claims it is accepted use and tradition, but the news director of the largest TV station in the Capitol has never heard of the policy.