Legislators all atwitter

State business deserves more than sound bites

Whether legislators’ use of Twitter is a boost for transparency or just an electronic form of a political bumper sticker, it is hard to see how it contributes to good government. Nonetheless, it appears to be the direction state government is taking.

As Scott Wasserman, executive director of the state employee union told the Herald, “There’s no question in the Capitol in 2012, there are almost two parallel conversations occurring: the conversation that happens on the floor or around the committee table, and the conversation that’s happening in the Twittersphere.”

Can that be good? Whatever else Twitter may be, it is not conducive to subtlety or nuanced expression.

Twitter is an online service that allows users to post and read text messages. Posted messages – called “tweets” – can be left for all to see or limited to “followers.” The thing to understand, however, is that a tweet is limited to 140 characters.

To put that in perspective, at the end of the last sentence, ending with the word “characters,” this writing stood at 148 words or fewer than half the number allowed a letter to the editor. But that translates to 908 characters, roughly the character count of 6½ tweets.

That may count as communication if the message is no more complicated than “Get bread, milk and eggs while you’re out, honey” (48 characters.) But such one-liners can hardly pass for meaningful discourse, certainly not if the subject involves the future of the state.

Yet that appears to be exactly what is going on. Last week, the three Democrats and three Republicans on the state Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee were deadlocked over a plan to cut the state payroll. A 2 percent decrease had been agreed to earlier in the year when less money was thought to be available to the state. Now, with forecasts looking up, the Democrats on the committee wanted to restore spending to avoid potentially hundreds of layoffs. A series of tie votes ensued until a Twitter war broke out.

The employee union tweeted, “State has $200 million in additional revenue. Why lay off workers? Hurts CO economy.”

The House Republican press office replied (retweeted?) saying the Democrats were “trying to balance budget on back of Colorado’s neediest seniors and students.”

The Dems’ press office joined in, saying, “That’s a false choice and you know it, why do you want to fire state troopers in the face of $100 million in extra funds?”

At one point, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, got involved, along with the two parties’ campaign organizations. The next day saw something of a repeat.

The lawmakers actually on the JBC were following along on their iPads, smartphones or computers. Presumably, they were entertained. McNulty and Ferrandino later joked that they should have negotiated the whole budget over Twitter.

In an odd way, that may have been an improvement over the past. The arguments being tweeted were little more than slogans or name-calling. Everyone involved could have anticipated the themes and predicted the talking points. Nonetheless it was still a far cry from last year’s process when the two parties’ leaders worked out the final details of the budget in secret.

But must that be the alternative? Are reasoned debate and articulate argument things of the past?

“Hurts CO economy”? Not too good for critical thinking, either.