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Public nuisance? Minimizing your right to know

A bill before the House of Representatives today takes a misguided approach to the state's right-to-know law. If legislators accept the way this bill frames the law, the public's right to access public information will be impaired.

House Bill 685 was supposed to expand the information available to the Legislative Budget Assistant during its investigations of non-state entities that spend state money. The first section of the bill does that. But the House Judiciary Committee inserted an amendment to create a committee for the purpose of studying the cost to the state of complying with the right-to-know law. That provision must not pass as written.

The new section creates the committee and tasks it with studying "the costs to governmental bodies associated with responding to right-to-know requests" and determining whether there are ways to reduce those costs. The committee's directions presume that the right-to-know law is a costly burden on state government.

The bill then directs the committee to "(m)ake recommendations for legislation that would fairly balance the public's right to access government records with the need of each governmental body to ensure that its staff is not unduly diverted from their core work functions to respond to right-to know requests."

The study committee would begin its work with a built-in bias against the public's right to access public information. Contrary to the way HB 685 frames the issue, complying with the right-to-know law is not a secondary function of state government to be put aside until state employees might have time to get to it. Complying with the right-to-know law is a part of the core function of every state agency because that law is the sovereign people's primary method of monitoring the government that works on their behalf.

Surely legislators will not pass a bill that reduces the people's access to public information on the theory that providing such access is less important than every other function of state government.


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