BillTrack 50: What’s up in your state legislature?

It’s about time someone created a way to keep a national watch on bills moving through state legislatures. And, fortunately, someone has. That someone is  Denver-based LegiNation, founded in 2011, with a big goal: To help people “find relevant legislation across states, get informed and take action regarding new and proposed laws that impact their personal freedoms, interests and daily life.”

LegiNation describes itself this way:

LegiNation, Inc. was founded with the goal of making state level legislation more readily available to the professionals who need it, and even more importantly to the public at large. We are building products and Web sites to spark a renaissance in American politics, leveraging the Internet to create the dialog so desperately needed amongst our elected officials, legislative professionals, and everyday citizens.

Initially, the organization’s target audience was politicians, lobbyists, companies and people with a financial stake in bills making their way through legislature. And it still serves that professional audience, using a fee structure– starting at $500 a year– that buys detailed reports and specialized updates on legislation specified by clients.

More recently, though, [April 2012], LegiNation announced that it now offers free access to its database to the general public. The database is called BillTrack 50.  When you visit the site, you get access to an unlimited number of state searches, using keywords to find bills on topics you’re interested in. BillTrack50 searches the full text of the bills—not just the headline or the bill’s title—making it significantly easier to discover relevant legislation that can be hidden within seemingly unrelated bills.

That’s a big plus, particularly at a time when bills often carry names that make them sound like the exact opposite of what they actually are.

Via BillTrack 50, you can read entire bills, and find the contact information for sponsors and co-sponsors, enabling you to take further action. BillTrack 50 also provides a permanent link for each bill, so you can share it by email and Twitter, or post it on a website or blog.

LegiNation says that, in 2011-2012, BillTrack 50 tracked more than 200,000 state bills, which are continuously updated as they make their way from filing to committee hearings, floor debate and votes.

Test drive

I tried it out the other day. To enter the database, you need to register, but that’s a low barrier for what appears to be a very powerful tool. Using the site’s Quick Search feature, I entered my criteria [Missouri and its surrounding states, and bills containing the words “vote,” “voter,” “election” and “identification.” ]The database returned 22 bills for just the 2012 session. The result is a scary overview of efforts toward voter suppression in the region where I live. It also gives me a way of checking in on elected officials, to see how their actions in the state legislature squares with their campaign promises. Equally important is the way a search like mine can help reveal the interstate workings of an organization like ALEC, by demonstrating the similarities among bills in different state legislatures. You might even spot a trend before it comes to your own state.

State legislatures are notorious for their lack of transparency and their ability to fly under the radar with little press coverage. The bills they file and vote on often have very specific impacts on the daily lives of citizens. In addition, there’s a growing trend, among conservative Congressional representatives, to try to devalue the federal government and to push the primacy of states. [Remember what that looked like in the years before the national Civil Rights Act? ] The resurgent states’-rights movement adds urgency to the need to knowwhat’s going on in state legislatures. It’s been said, many times, that sunshine is a great disinfectant. If BillTrack 50 is successful, it could be an excellent tool for bringing light to the workings of state legislatures.