Scores of states and cities have recently enacted bans on texting while driving. But a proposed bill in Texas could make it the first state to prohibit a different kind of technology use: texting while lawmaking.
The measure, introduced in March by Rep. Todd Hunter, would make it illegal for Texas legislators to send or receive a text, e-mail or instant message, or make posts to websites, during public meetings. It’s not a question of whether lawmakers are paying attention -- although that’s an issue -- but rather, the concern is that such communication violates open meeting laws.
If enacted, Texas would be the first state with a law of this kind. But the legality of texting while lawmaking has already been cause for debate in places around the country. In San Jose, Calif., controversy erupted in 2009 when a lobbyist texted the wrong city councilmember telling him how to vote. In response, the city adopted an ordinance requiring councilmembers to disclose relevant electronic communications they receive during meetings. The state also prohibited lobbyists and lawmakers from texting one another while on the floor or in committee.
Legislative chambers in at least 36 states -- not including Texas -- plus the District of Columbia have rules restricting the use of electronic devices, such as cell phones. But most of these rules don’t punish violators and only address the device’s noise, calling for them to be turned off or silenced, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Colorado Senate is one of the few chambers to mention text messaging in its rule. Texting, e-mailing and making phone calls are prohibited on the floor and at all other official meetings. However, members can use laptops and tablets, except during a bill’s final reading. But the consequences of violating the rule are nominal -- a $2 to $5 fine -- and not one lawmaker has been punished for breaking the ban since it was enacted over five years ago. Colorado Sen. Greg Brophy calls the rule “stupid,” adding that legislators ignore it “as often as people break the law regarding the use of cell phones while driving.”
The problem, critics say, is that electronic communication is useful -- especially during public meetings. Texas Rep. Marc Veasey says technology allows him to keep his constituents updated during meetings through social media. “If members can’t restrain themselves properly in the use of this technology,” he says, “then maybe there needs to be some House rules. But not a law.”
If Hunter’s bill does become law, Veasey says, it will create more distractions than the texting itself, because members will leave the room whenever they need to post a social media message, check e-mail or work on press releases. Nonetheless, Veasey says, the bill has a good chance of being adopted, because Hunter chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee that determines which bills will be brought to a vote.