Kentucky lawmakers taking aim at government transparency

Jeff Neal

On the local level, it's been refreshing to hear our new mayor and our new director of economic development call for increased government transparency.

Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and SPEDA director Chris Girdler have both said transparency will be the key to making SPEDA work.

They want taxpayers to know and understand what the new agency is doing with your money in order to bring business and industry into our region.

In Frankfort, things are going in the opposite direction.

And it's chilling.

Rep. Jason Petrie (R-Elkton) has introduced House Bill 387, which aims to make it harder for Kentuckians to know how their tax dollars are being used by the commonwealth to lure and incentivize businesses to locate here.

But the proposed legislation doesn't stop there. There are also provisions that would eliminate the court appeals process to a denied request for legislative branch records; replace the Attorney General's office as the decision maker on open record petitions with the Legislative Research Commission -- a group controlled by the Kentucky General Assembly; exclude non-Kentucky residents from accessing records under the Kentucky Open Records Law -- which means out-of-state journalists would not be able to obtain information; and prevent people filing open government litigation from using Kentucky's Open Records Law to gather documents.

The law is a stark reminder of last year's bill proposed by Sen. Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown), which called for legislators to be permitted to conduct government business on their personal devices -- and have those devices be protected from scrutiny.

Fortunately, Thayer's bill was killed before it saw the light of day.

In a time where no one trusts anything lawmakers are doing, this is an absolute disgrace.

What we need is more government transparency -- not an attack on it altogether. Petrie's law, in essence, would prohibit the free press and taxpayers from accessing public institutions' records. And if there is an open records appeal filed, it would go straight into the hands of the lawmakers who have stifled transparency in the first place. Talk about the foxes guarding the hen house.

Daniel Bevarly, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said recently "there is a crisis in Kentucky."

" ... if these laws aren't quashed now, the damage isn't just limited to the Bluegrass State," Bevarly said. "State legislatures watch each other. If a state succeeds with passing laws that decrease transparency and accountability, they will become an example for another state to point to and follow that pattern.

"It all starts with a bad bill that becomes a bad law that becomes bad policy," Bevarly added. "Combating this pattern requires litigation -- expensive for the litigator, the agency, and ultimately the taxpayer to fight a lawsuit for records that should be made available and, in the end, usually are."

It's very important to have access to public records. The lack of that access weakens the concept of an open government -- a transparent government.

It certainly makes one wonder -- what do these elected officials have to hide?

JEFF NEAL is the Editor of the Commonwealth Journal. Contact him at jneal@somerset-kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jnealCJ.

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