Politics & Government

State senators get permission for Facebook, caution on Twitter

A new policy might cut down on the Legislature’s partisan squabbling in one arena: Twitter.

A committee that sets administrative policy for the Senate approved expanding the chamber’s social media presence Tuesday, but not before adding a warning.

“Engaging in direct ‘conversation’ with others through social media is not appropriate other than to provide clarifying or informational responses,” the new guidelines say.

Senate lawyers floated that sentence after reviewing what the Legislature’s partisan caucuses have tweeted at each other and the public.

Tuesday’s Twitter traffic was typical: Senate Democrats slammed Senate Republicans for refusing to close a tax exemption for the oil industry, while Republicans mocked House Democrats for refusing to vote on the taxes they have proposed.

Senators on the Facilities and Operations Committee approved the policy without dissent. It is due to take effect July 1 unless the Legislature’s ethics board raises objections.

Staff in the House are reviewing that chamber’s social media policy for potential changes.

The Senate policy expands the use of social media, allowing majority Republicans, minority Democrats and all 49 senators to each have a staff-maintained Facebook and YouTube account if they want them.

The majority and minority caucuses can let people post comments on their accounts, but individual senators must disable comment features.

Today, the Senate doesn’t have Facebook pages and there’s one Twitter and one YouTube account per caucus. Senators who want their own accounts can set up personal ones. Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, requested a more permissive policy.

The policy doesn’t go as far as Fain wanted. It lets senators copy content from their official Web pages to their Facebook pages but it doesn’t let them post any original content on Facebook. Nor does it allow senators to have official individual Twitter accounts.

Senate Democrats had raised worries about how much staff time lawmakers’ social media efforts would consume under Fain’s original proposal and whether their self-promotion might get out of hand.

“They’re right to be cautious about how we do this, because there are ethical considerations that need to be taken into account and we also need to make sure that we’re being sensitive to staff,” Fain said, “but the overarching goal should be finding inexpensive and effective ways of communicating and interacting with our constituents.”

Fain said under the new policy he plans to run a blog on his official Web page and turn part or all of his blog posts into Facebook posts. He also hopes more viewers will now be able to see his short YouTube videos about policy.

The policy moves the Senate into step with the times, Fain said — if maybe not all the way to 21st-century times.

“It gets us well into the 1990s,” he said.