Sunshine Week Roundup: Government transparency dustups abound in the Sun Belt



This Sunshine Week, there are a number of bills out there affecting government transparency across the Sunbelt. With a storm brewing in Arkansas and an effort to further open records exemptions in New Mexico, more and more states are working to move government further into the shadows.

The news isn’t all bad. Texas has put forward an illuminating set of legislation aiming to open up government contracts with private businesses and nonprofits that act on behalf of the government with taxpayer funding.

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Storm over New Mexico (Photo by Todd Shoemake, Creative Commons 2.0)

Arkansas

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports 10 anti-transparency bills are on their way through Arkansas’ legislative process, running the gamut from state Capitol police records, videos depicting a police officer’s death, emergency plan documents for the state corrections system, and more.

Democrat-Gazette projects editor Sonny Albarado said the passage of any of this legislation will make it harder for Arkansas journalists to do their jobs. Albarado emphasized several pieces of legislation as especially concerning.

Senate Bill 373 would allow state agencies such as schools and universities to shield documents from open records requests under attorney-client privilege if counsel had seen or commented upon the documents. Another bill would let universities waive the state’s three-day deadline for responses to open records requests deemed “unduly burdensome,” essentially allowing them to slow-roll journalists indefinitely.

Another bill would shield school security officers from open records requests about their hiring and equipment. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he supports open records in the past, but as governor he will keep an “open mind” to any legislation that comes his way.

Albarado said the chances of any of the bills passing are good, and don’t bode well for transparency in the state.

“It’ll make the public’s right to know what their government’s doing a lot weaker than it already is,” Albarado said.

One bill, HB1665, looks ready for passage to Hutchinson’s desk. The bill would allow businesses to sue whistleblowers who have uncovered wrongdoing on business property outside of employees performing their job. This would include anyone who “records images or sound occurring within an employer's commercial property and uses the recording in a manner that damages the employer.”

As VICE reports, this would prohibit the kind of undercover investigative journalism that has spurred change in other states.

Texas

Meanwhile, Texas is looking to reclaim their mantle as one of the most transparent states in the country. Two sets of companion bills sponsored by Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, and Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Republican from Southlake, aim to patch up some holes that have opened up in Texas’ transparency laws over the years.

Senate Bill 407 and House Bill 792 aim to patch up a loophole opened up by the state’s Supreme Court in Boeing v. Paxton, a 2015 decision that “allows all sorts of contracts the government holds with private businesses to be sealed from public view,” according to Kelley Shannon, the president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

In an incident that took transparency advocates’ breaths away, the city of McAllen refused to disclose how much it paid Enrique Iglesias to play a show at a holiday parade, which reportedly cost the city $583,000. Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office certified that positively loco decision as legal.

The other pair of bills from the Watson-Capriglione alliance, SB 407 and HB 792, look to address another 2015 ruling that Shannon writes “prevents the public from viewing the financial books of non-profits that are supported by taxpayer money and act in a government agency fashion.” That could have consequences for student journalists covering university foundations, which are technically private but do work for a public body.

New Mexico

The Albuquerque Journal reports a number of bills dealing with public transparency are moving around in the New Mexico legislature, with varying degrees of success.

House Bill 10, according to the Journal, would create a “public accountability board” responsible for investigating ethics complaints within the state government. Ironically, critics say it would operate largely behind closed doors.

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 267, would protect proprietary research conducted at universities from open records requests, which has been described as a defense against corporate espionage (but may also be motivated by politically charged requests made across the country in recent years for the records of climate-change researchers). A similar bill in North Dakota was endorsed by that state’s newspaper association.

One concerning bill was tabled this session, but open government advocates should keep an eye out for similar attempts in the future. Senate Bill 93 would have kept the names of government job applicants private. We don’t have to remind you that public university executives are government employees who often draw hefty salaries.

Previously

This Sunshine Week roundup is brought to you by the letter “T” and by the last time we had to do this. In case you missed it, Indiana’s House Bill 1523, which would implement an hourly search fee for records requests, has cleared the House and is now making its way through the state Senate.

Colorado’s Senate Bill 17-040, which would require agencies to release data in accessible digital formats, has made it through the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee and referred to Appropriations..

Florida House Bill 351, which makes information on applicants to public university executive positions private and tacks on exemptions for university executive search committee meetings from public meetings laws, has advanced from Post-Secondary Education to the Oversight, Transparency, and Administration Subcommittee.

In North Carolina Senate Bill 77, imposing a fine for failure to comply with open records laws, remains in the Senate Rules Committee without action.

Finally, the Kansas bill seeking to limit the fees agencies can charge to search records, Senate Bill 86, also remains in committee with no scheduled calendar dates.

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