In today's edition, we celebrate Sunshine Week, House Democrats pass their centerpiece political reform legislation, hundreds of lobbyists are wading through President Trump's swamp, a win for open government in Alabama, and more.
Cartoon by Joe Heller.
Sunshine Week kicked off yesterday and continues on through Saturday. We'll be doing our best to highlight Sunshine Week events, reporting, and analysis. If you'd like to see your Sunshine Week content shared here, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sunlight is joining with the Government Accountability Project and the Union of Concerned Scientists for a Sunshine Week event exploring assaults on science in the Trump era. The event will take place on Tuesday, March 12th from 6:00 – 8:00 pm EST in Washington, DC. Learn more and register to attend here.
- Celebrating FOIA and exploring the public records behind some of the year's biggest stories. "Long considered the domain of dogged investigative journalists and crackpot conspiracy theorists, FOIA spent much of the new millenium in the shadow of its much more photogenic younger sibling Open Data. As the world moved more digital and transparency became the default, the idea of citing some arcane legalase to be begrudgingly granted access to records – paper records – seemed such a laughably archaic concept that the whole thing had to be on its way out, replaced by something far more efficient any day now. And yet here we are, in the middle what feels like a FOIA renaissance. Just over half a century after FOIA was first signed into law – with state-level public records laws quickly following suit – and more people than ever are asserting their legal right to hold government accountable, at both the highest level as well as in their own neighborhoods…For Sunshine Week, we wanted to look at how public records has been behind some of the biggest headlines of the year, and how those stories can inspire a whole new crop of reporting." (MuckRock)
- The Stillwater League of Women Voters is marking Sunshine Week with an open government pledge for Oklahoma politicians. "Sunshine Week is a nationwide effort to foster dialogue on the importance of transparency in government, freedom of information, and open government at all levels. It occurs around the birthday of James Madison, the fourth president of the U.S. and author of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and is scheduled for the week of March 10-16 this year. The Stillwater League of Women Voters has been celebrating Sunshine Week for several years by asking elected officials and those running for offices to sign a pledge supporting open government. By signing, they agree that they and their public bodies will comply with the letter and spirit of Oklahoma’s Open Meeting and Open Records laws." (Stillwater News Press via NFOIC)
- The House passed H.R. 1, a sweeping political reform package, on Friday. "The House on Friday passed a massive voting rights, campaign-finance and ethics reform package — a centerpiece of the new Democratic majority’s agenda. The bill, known as H.R. 1 and dubbed the For the People Act by Democrats, was approved on a party-line 234-193 vote…The bill has little chance of becoming law in the face of stiff opposition from the GOP-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that it would get no floor time 'because I get to decide what we vote on.' Trump has also threatened to veto the bill, in the unlikely event it will make it to the president’s desk." (POLITICO)
- The U.S government has been keeping a secret database of journalists working on the Mexican border. "Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the U.S. government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports…in the months that followed, journalists who covered the caravan, as well as those who offered assistance to caravan members, said they felt they had become targets of intense inspections and scrutiny by border officials…Now, documents leaked to NBC 7 Investigates show their fears weren’t baseless. In fact, their own government had listed their names in a secret database of targets, where agents collected information on them." (NBC 7 San Diego)
- The government is considering charging a fee for access to vital satellite imagery. Here's why that's a bad idea. Zhe Zhu writes, "Landsat is one of the most important U.S. satellite systems…For a long time, the U.S. government charged a fee for every Landsat image. But this changed on Oct. 1, 2008, when the U.S. Geological Survey opened the Landsat archive and made it free for everyone to use. This open data policy has led to a dramatic increase in the use of Landsat data…However, the free and open Landsat data policy is now under scrutiny. An April 2018 news report revealed that the Department of the Interior was considering putting a price on Landsat data again. The decision will come sometime this year. This potential policy change is concerning. The USGS-NASA Landsat Science Team, of which I am a member, published a study on Feb. 27 highlighting the major benefits of Landsat’s free data policy. For the Landsat program to remain successful, free and open data is the key." (Government Executive)
- Pentagon watchdogs allowed improper access to whistleblower files, according to new GAO report. "Too many employees in all the Defense Department inspectors general offices were allowed access to sensitive whistleblower reprisal investigation files without full authorization, the Government Accountability Office reported on Thursday." (Government Executive)
- Hundreds of lobbyists have waded out of the Swamp into the Trump administration. "When President Trump first incorporated his pledge to “drain the swamp” into his campaign speeches in October 2016, he told audiences that he’d been lukewarm on the slogan at first…One might have thought at the time that Trump didn’t initially like the slogan because it was corny or off message. But now it seems fairer to assume that he didn’t like the slogan because he didn’t actually mind the swamp one bit…Data provided to The Post by the liberal organization American Bridge 21st Century identifies over 350 individuals who’ve worked as lobbyists who currently work in the administration, have worked in it or have been nominated to serve in Trump’s administration." (Washington Post)
- The Trump administration is seeking feedback on its idea to bring some transparency to health care pricing. "Attacking 'the secretive nature of pricing in the health care market,' the Trump administration said this week that it wanted to require public disclosure of the rates that doctors and hospitals negotiate with health insurance companies…Disclosure of the wildly different prices paid by insurers for the same services in the same market would probably incite competition and 'drive down health care prices,' the administration said in soliciting comment on its idea…The concept, set forth Monday in the Federal Register and reported by The Wall Street Journal, is not a formal proposal, but rather a first step toward a possible proposal, clearly signaling the direction in which President Trump wants to go." (New York Times)
- Newly released documents show that Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta's calendar is heavy on meetings with business, political interests. "Two months before the Labor Department reversed course and proposed a lengthy delay for a regulation to bar retirement account brokers from financial conflicts of interest, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta met with legislators and industry representatives who opposed the rule. Evidence of the meetings surfaced in more than 1,000 documents that the watchdog group American Oversight acquired under the Freedom of Information Act. A POLITICO analysis of the documents shows that Republicans and business representatives occupied most of Acosta's schedule during his first eight months as labor secretary." (POLITICO)
states and cities
- Keep track of state public records laws with this interactive database. "There are 50 state records laws (51 counting Washington D.C.) all with different statutes, exemptions, and limitations that dictate what you can get from your state and local agencies. With the rules of access differing across the board, MuckRock provides an easy way to keep track of them all through our interactive database showcasing the best, the worst, and the confusing parts of state records law. At a glance, our MuckRock place page gives quick insight into each state’s average response time, state’s that block out-of-state requesters, as well as state exemptions and government branches exempt from records law." (MuckRock)
- The Alabama Supreme Court handed out an open government win in a case between the state's teachers and an insurance board. "The Alabama Supreme Court today ruled that public officials must conduct the public’s business in public. The Court ruling addressed attempted loopholes, affirming that the Open Meetings Act does not allow public officials to meet in private for "training" when they that training is just a presentation from their staff. The Court agreed with the Alabama Education Association that the state's education employee insurance board, known as PEEHIP, violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act in 2016 when it met behind closed doors to discuss a premium increase for teachers and other education employees." (AL.com h/t Trisha Powell Crain)
- Despite campaign rhetoric, the New York State Assembly doesn't appear eager to tackle political reforms. "Though Democrats have for years blamed Republican intransigence for the failure of key campaign finance and ethics reforms in Albany, those measures still appear stalled even as their party controls the entire state Legislature and governor’s office. On Friday, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that the votes are not there in his chamber to approve a public-matching campaign finance system, despite the fact that the Assembly has repeatedly passed such a measure in the past when Republicans controlled the Senate…Heastie also threw cold water on a state Senate-approved bill to limit campaign contributions from entities seeking state contracts and downplayed the need for additional government ethics reforms…" (Gotham Gazette)
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