Friday, March 16, 2012

Who's to blame for the House not voting on legislative transparency?


House Speaker Kris Steele decided not to put HB 1085 up for a full vote of the House on Thursday ahead of a deadline for sending the legislative transparency bill to the Senate for consideration.

For practical purposes, that means another year of state lawmakers failing to live by the same open government mandate that we expect other state and local officials to live by.

So who's to blame for the bill failing to advance?

I don't believe it's all Steele's fault. He's responsible for the bill having been heard by the committee chaired by its author, Rep. Jason Murphey. Then Steele went out of his way to vote for the bill in committee, as well as spend his Saturday morning speaking up for it at the Sunshine Conference.

Here's what Steele said Thursday:
Since then, we have learned it is unlikely the Senate will hear the bill, 20 amendments have been filed on the bill and legislators have been asking many, many questions about the bill and the effect it would have. In order to give time to address all the questions, the bill is not going forward at this time, but I will continue to work with my colleagues to address their questions and concerns.

I believe subjecting this body to open records and open meetings laws is the right thing to do and the next logical step in our recent efforts to make the Legislature more transparent and open to the public. Change of this magnitude takes time, but I am confident it will occur sooner rather than later.
I'm told that while many House members were telling constituents that they supported the bill, they were privately demanding that Steele not bring it up for a vote.

Representatives couldn't vote down an open government bill that 85 percent of their constituents support. But most of the lawmakers sure as hell didn't want it.

"Some of our members were absolutely vicious," said Murphey. "And they brought pressure like I haven't seen before. He [Steele] tried to convince them. I did, too. It didn't work."

Steele could have forced the vote, but he would have alienated a majority of even his own Republican Party to the point of jeopardizing the rest of his legislative agenda in what will be his last session. That was too much to expect.

Murphey and Steele said the 19 floor amendments added Monday and Tuesday (plus four amendments to amendments) created an obstacle. "I don't recall a bill that ever had that many amendments," said Murphey.

So should the authors of those floor amendments, Murphey's fellow Republicans Randy Terrill and Mike Reynolds, be blamed for the bill's demise?

For example, Murphey had exempted party caucuses because opening them was a deal-breaker for so many representatives. But amendments would have opened party caucuses being held on public property.

To be fair, an amendment by Terrill also would have simply added to the list of people who wouldn't have to pay a search fee for legislative staff to find records. As I had suggested on the blog prior to the committee vote, the bill would have been amended to use the same language from the Open Records Act regarding search fees.

Murphey said that at first, he feared Terrill "might be trying to kill the deal with his amendments."

But, Murphey said, Terrill "proved to be reasonable and was going to withdraw the problematic ones."

"In the end, I think Terrill wanted to help," said Murphey.

Reynolds, on the other hand, "wouldn't pull any of his" amendments, Murphey said.

"The Reynolds amendments were the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "Reynolds just causes chaos, and I think he thrives off of it."

Reynolds told The Oklahoman that HB 1085 did not go far enough.

"The bill was totally inadequate so we crafted a number of good amendments," he said.

I disagree with Reynolds’ assertion that the original version of HB 1085 was a do-nothing bill. Yes, I would have liked stronger elements in the bill. But I believe HB 1085 still would have been a significant step forward in transparency for the Legislature.

Whether Reynolds sincerely intended to improve the bill or to love it to death, the result was the same: No vote was taken, and an opportunity was missed.

But Reynolds really isn’t to blame for the bill's failure.

His amendments wouldn’t have been a deterrent if a majority of legislators truly believed in open government. They could have sincerely debated the amendments and reached reasonable compromises where necessary. That is their job, after all.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of House (and Senate) members don’t want to conduct the public’s business in public.

So who's to blame?

You. Me. Us.

We haven't elected enough state lawmakers who truly believe that the legislative process should be an open one and who will vote for such a bill.

HB 1085 begins with this preamble:
As the Oklahoma Constitution recognizes and guarantees, all political power is inherent in the people of Oklahoma.

It is the public policy of the Legislature of the State of Oklahoma to encourage and facilitate an informed citizenry’s understanding of the legislative process. The purpose of the Oklahoma Legislative Open Records and Meetings Act is to provide the public with the means to hold their legislators to account so that the public may exercise their inherent political power.
But too many of our legislators, along with some powerful lobbyists, don't want us to understand the legislative process. They don't want us to see behind the curtain. They aren't going to provide us with an easy means to hold them accountable. At least not without a fight.

Murphey says HB 1085 will be back next year.

We must help him by demanding that legislative leaders follow up on this year's progress. We must demand that our representatives and senators pass this legislation. We must replace those who won't.

We can't rely upon the news media to do this for us. WE must make it a campaign issue in every legislative race.

After all, we get the Legislature that we deserve.


Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the commentators and do not necessarily represent the position of FOI Oklahoma Inc., its staff, or its board of directors. Differing interpretations of open government law and policy are welcome.

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