Sunshine and shadows: Statehouses tackle open records laws in 2015

The political storm passes
Virginia’s statehouse weathers a storm. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)


Transparency advocates, it’s a great time to check in on your state legislature! The 2016 state legislative sessions have already witnessed a host of important actions, with legislators across the country considering measures to increase and decrease governmental transparency. Two months into the new year, one state Virginia has already concluded its work for 2015, while several others are rounding into their final month of work. Here’s a roundup of some of the bills we’re watching.

Open Meetings and Public Records

A bipartisan effort to substantially limit public access to lawmakers’ meetings in Arizona has stalled for now. SB 1435 aimed to redefine “public meeting” to include only meetings where lawmakers at any level of government took a vote, potentially eliminating all deliberative sessions from the public eye. As local media pointed out, this “would have allowed meetings of the legislature, county supervisors, school boards and city councils to be conducted behind closed doors unless a vote was being held.” This was the most sweeping reduction of public meeting access to be proposed so far this legislative session, so public access advocates were heartened to see it not move forward. Another potential weakening of public meetings — Wyoming’s HB 232, a bill to allow public agencies to cast votes during closed executive sessions — also did not move forward after it failed to surmount an early procedural hurdle. And Tennessee, unfortunately, is continuing to move towards a change to its public records law that would create new fees for people who want to inspect public records. Submitted at the behest of school boards who feel burdened by excessive public interest, HB 315 would nonetheless apply to all government records and reduce public access.

Positive Developments

Meanwhile, in many states we are seeing a number of positive movements to increase sunlight on state lawmaking.

Trends in Public Access Restriction: Information about Executions

Following the botched executions of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, Joseph Wood in Arizona, and Dennis McGuire in Ohio — and in the midst of increased federal attention to the methods of state execution — several legislatures have turned their attention to public access to information about executions. For the most part, these bills have sought to limit public access to information.

  • Ohio: Ohio’s response to the failure of its execution method was to increase secrecy about it. At the end of 2014, Ohio passed HB 663, which makes private any information relating to the people and drugs involved in state executions. A legal challenge to the constitutionality of this new provision has just failed.
  • Mississippi: A similar bill (HB 1305) was just rejected in Mississippi’s Senate after passing the state House.
  • Virginia ultimately rejected a bill, SB 1393, that would make execution drug information private and exclude it from coverage from the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
  • Texas(HB 1587): Meanwhile, in Texas Rep. Terry Canales has just introduced a bill to proactively disclose information about execution pharmaceuticals in advance of any execution.

Transparency in Ethics, Lobbying and Campaign Finance

Ethics Reforms

Some positive ethics reforms are up for a vote — and have been achieved in one case already: Virginia managed to pass a significant ethics revision by the end of its short legislative session, reducing the limit on the value of gifts that legislators could accept to $100.

  • New Mexico is considering a more substantial ethics overhaul. A suite of bills would create a state ethics commission (HB 115 — New Mexico is currently one of just seven states that has no ethics commission), create clearer disclosures for lobbying (HB 155), and increase disclosure of “independent expenditures” in campaigns (HB 278 and SB 384.)
  • Indiana (HB 1002): Ethics reform is also being attempted in Indiana, where HB 1002 would create additional disclosure requirements for lawmakers, including by requiring lawmakers to list family members who are state lobbyists and to strengthen the state’s revolving door law.
  • Missouri (HB 228; SB 11): Missouri is also looking to improve their ethics law under two bills, one which limits the legislative revolving door by requiring a one-year cooling off period before legislators become lobbyists (HB 228) and the other which creates a two-year cooling off period for Assembly members, with additional restrictions (SB 11).

Dark Money

Campaign finance reform aimed at improving disclosure for “dark money” is on the agenda in a couple of additional states.

  • Hawaii (SB 1344): The legislature here is looking at SB 1344, a bill to increase transparency for SuperPACs.
  • Montana (SB 289): In Montana, the legislature seems poised to pass SB 289 which will also require additional transparency. (A further group of Montana campaign finance bills that would have mandated greater disclosure has already been tabled.)

Budget Cutbacks

As part of the legislative process — but sometimes harder to observe — we’ve unfortunately seen, state budget committees working against state ethics enforcement in several states, limiting the state’s ability to ensure that public bodies and officers comply with the state’s own laws.