Staff and wire reports
OKLAHOMA CITY — A state press official is expressing concern about bills that would impose a tax on readers of newspapers and magazines and tweak the state’s Open Records Act.
As executive vice president of Oklahoma Press Associa-tion, Mark Thomas keeps track of legislation affecting the public’s right to know about the activities of their government.
Removing the sales tax exemption on newspapers, as proposed in a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, comes during a time when newspapers in Oklahoma and nationally are facing tough economic times.
Thomas said there’s a good reason to exempt newspapers from taxation, apart from financial considerations.
“What this bill does is tax people who are trying to read newspapers and magazines to find out what government is doing. We’re opposed to deleting those exemptions,” he said.
He says government, through its paid media staff and Web sites, always provides “a bunch of fluff free,” but people depend on their newspapers to get good information on government actions.
Enid News & Eagle publisher Jeff Funk said taxing newspaper subscriptions is taxing a service, not a product.
“Of course we oppose newspaper subscriptions be-ing singled out as a new source for taxation.
“Newspapers are more of a service than a product. Face it, people don’t purchase the News & Eagle for the paper and ink. They buy it for the information, knowledge, op-inions and shopping advice it contains. So, really, newspapers should remain exempt from sales tax just like the paid advice from your attorney or doctor,” Funk said.
Enid State Rep. Mike Jackson said taxing newspaper subscriptions would be tough to implement.
“When paper’s provide such essential service for our constituents to make sure they know what is happening in the Legislature, the Capitol press corps, as well as the Enid News & Eagle, locally do a good job of keeping people up-to-date and we want to insure that product is affordable,” the Enid Republican said.
Jackson also opposes any secrecy rules and said the best way for government to operate is in the open with the process as transparent as possible. As House Majority Whip, Jackson will oppose any secrecy legislation, he said.
State Rep. John Enns, R-Enid, said the Legislature does not need to make up new taxes. He said newspapers provide a service and he doesn’t want to tax that. Enns also said he opposes legislation that would give the government the ability to act more secretly.
State Sen. Patrick Ander-son, R-Enid, said newspaper subscription exemptions are one of the group Sen. Mazzei asked to look at, but he thinks it would be more costly to collect such a tax than it will bring in.
“I don’t think we have anyone trying to make government more secret. It’s the people’s business and needs to be in the open and those records need to continue to be more open,” he said.
Anderson proposed a bill that would allow plans of business in business incubators around the state to remain private, rather than being public information because the incubator is associated with a school. However, he said he is working with the Oklahoma Press Association to make sure the bill does not go too far.
“I think newspapers provide an essential public service to the community. If we turn around and put a tax on that service it may jeopardize that. ... It may cause some of that coverage to go away and lead to a less informed public and I don’t think that’s a direction we want to go, he said.
Most other states do not tax readers when they buy a newspaper, and Oklahoma should not add such a tax.
Over the last few decades, bills to remove the newspaper exemption have cropped up from time to time, but were usually offered by lawmakers not in the leadership.
Mazzei is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and has been the point man to Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, on financial and tax issues.
Mazzei has been undergoing therapy for a back injury and did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
All in all, the crop of bills filed for the upcoming session of the Oklahoma Legislature is a mixed bag, Thomas said.
He said some close loopholes in the law that need to be fixed, but others attempt to shut down more government records or revisit areas of law for no apparent reason.
“Many of the confidentiality protections these bills seek already exist in state law or are not in state law for a very good purpose,” he said.
“This is an era of openness and personal responsibility. Taxpayers want to know more about their government, not less.”
Thomas praised a bill by Rep. John Carey, D-Durant, that seeks to clarify that police should make incident reports available to the public, even if there are no arrests.
He said the way some local police jurisdictions have interpreted the law, no incident reports are required unless someone is taken into custody. He said in some circumstances, that essentially permits “secret police actions” with no public accounting.
“A public official could get drunk, steal a guitar and be taken to the drunk tank, but if he is not arrested, there’s no report. That’s not right,” Thomas said.
A year ago, state Labor Commissioner Lloyd Fields had to apologize for his actions after being taken to a detox center from a party where he allegedly tried to take a rodeo cowboy’s guitar. Fields called it “a practical joke gone bad.”
Oklahoma City police officials would not identify Fields because he was not arrested.
Other bills that concern Thomas would make violent felons eligible to have their convictions expunged from court records, permit autopsy reports to be confidential and allow county commissioners to hire outside attorneys, instead of using their district attorneys in legal cases.
Sen. Connie Johnson, D-Oklahoma City, is sponsoring the expungement bill.
“You can’t change history, so if you are a convicted felon or violent felon, you shouldn’t be able to hide that from public view,” Thomas said.
He said medical examiners already can withhold certain investigatory material, but “we should not allow the autopsy report to be confidential, too.”
Thomas opposes allowing county commissioners to hire outside lawyers “because the DA is an elected official and if he gives bad legal advice, he can be removed. If they hire private attorneys who give bad legal advice, you can’t remove bad attorneys.”
Thomas questions the need for a bill that allows any law enforcement group to hold meetings closed to the public.
“Law enforcement is not subject to the open records act now,” he said. “Law enforcement records are closed unless the statute opens them up. We need to clarify what meetings the bill is talking about.”
Thomas said freedom of information measures “shouldn’t be just important to the media. They should be important to the citizens who need to know about their government. How are people supposed to find about their government unless they can attend meetings and get access to records.
“Access to government meetings and records is the only safeguard against government waste and corruption.”
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