Oklahoma legislators are pushing measures that would close public records and give public bodies more opportunities to meet in secret, but open government advocates also are praising lawmakers this session for their commitment to providing more public access to state entities.
With the 2013 legislative session in full swing, the media and open-government groups are monitoring dozens of bills that would either expand or restrict the public’s ability to access government information.
“There are many positive transparency efforts this session, and we’re encouraged that legislators not only think about transparency more, but actually vote to make the government more transparent at all levels,” said Mark Thomas, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Press Association, who lobbies legislators on behalf of newspapers across the state. “We would hope that legislators that introduce bills to decrease transparency would think about the ramifications of government secrecy.”
Despite recent progress, Oklahoma ranked 38th out of the 50 states and received a “D” grade as part of a recent $1.5 million State Integrity Investigation, a partnership of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International, that included an analysis of each state’s laws that are designed to promote openness and discourage corruption. In the 14 categories in which states were measured, Oklahoma received a failing grade for public access to information, largely because of lax enforcement of violations and a lack of an appeals process when records are denied.
One of the bills introduced this year — House Bill 1450, by Rep. Jason Murphey — would create an appeals option within the office of the Ethics Commission for people who are denied records.
“When someone files an open records request and the government refuses to cooperate with what may be a very plain reading of the law, those individuals’ foremost approach might be litigation,” said Murphey, R-Guthrie. “The irony of that is that the government has all this money that they lawyer up with, and they use the taxpayers’ own tax dollars to fight against him, even though there’s a very plain reading of the law that suggest those records should be open and transparent.”
Murphey, a proponent of more openness in government, also has introduced bills in recent legislative sessions to make the Legislature itself subject to open records and open meetings laws, an exemption that also has played a factor in Oklahoma’s low ranking for openness. Although his bill last year cleared a House panel, this year’s measure is languishing in committee.
Still, Murphey said progress is being made with changes to House rules and upgrades in technology that give the public more access to legislative activity than ever before.
“It may not ever be as rapid as those of us who are really aggressive on this issue would like it, but there’s no doubt about it, we’re making progress every year,” he said.
Last year, House rules were changed to require conference committees to publicly meet, rather than just agree to changes to legislation — a process still commonplace in the Senate. House Speaker T.W. Shannon said last week that practice will continue this session and his creation of a Calendar Committee that meets in public to determine which bills are scheduled for a hearing in the House also helps open the process.
“Things are more open than they’ve ever been before,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “I don’t know that there’s much reason to go beyond that right now.”
But some open records advocates disagree. Joey Senat, a journalism professor at Oklahoma State University, said there is “no good excuse” for the Legislature to be exempt from the same statutes that govern the executive branch, law enforcement and virtually every state agency.
“It’s a shame, and people need to start holding their legislators accountable for this,” Senat said. “The reason is that they don’t want us to know what they’re doing. They want to be able to play politics behind closed doors — at least, many of them do.”
And while Senat blasted legislators for keeping in place their exemption from open records and open meetings laws, he acknowledged some of the legislation being considered this year is favorable toward openness in government.
Besides Murphey’s bill to add an appeals process for a denial of records, Senat said he’s encouraged about a bill that would prohibit judges from sealing records without specific constitutional or statutory authority to do so.
“That’s been a common practice for a long time,” Senat said. “It’s a problem in this state and elsewhere.
“The Supreme Court has said it should be difficult to close off court records, but judges don’t listen to that.”
State Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, said there is a trend toward more transparency. As an example, he cited rules set up by Shannon that attempt to do that.
“The calendar committee has increased transparency in the process itself. If you look at the Legislature, more transparency is part of the entire process,” Jackson said. “Anytime you shine a light on something, you come up with a better result; it’s more thought out and (a) benefit to the state of Oklahoma.”
State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, also said the trend is toward transparency. Both the House and the Senate have committees this year. Two years ago, Anderson assisted the Enid News & Eagle in requesting an attorney general opinion on a law regarding disclosure of some county records.
The Senate also wants to review non-funded agencies that charge fees to residents, such as state occupational boards, to ensure the money is properly spent. There also is legislation attempting to make sure the Legislature complies with open records laws.
“It’s the legislative intent to make things as open and accessible as we can, or at least improve it,” Anderson said.
One example of a need for transparency is an audit done on $2 million spent on the statewide Youth Expo. Those funds will be audited, but will not be disclosed, he said.
“That’s clearly state funds used, and that’s a fantastic example of why we have to have Oklahoma Open Records laws to focus on things like that,” Anderson said.
AP writer Sean Murphy and Staff Writer Robert Barron contributed to this story.