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Veto over openness of assembly records stands for now

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    NMU         INDIANA         Freedom of Information         Nov 20, 2001    

Veto over openness of assembly records stands for now

  • Indiana’s House Speaker declined to give state lawmakers a chance to override governor’s veto of a bill designed to exempt the Assembly from much of the Public Records Act.

Indiana’s legislators calmed the fears of newspaper editors today by focusing on constructing a schedule for the next legislative session rather than voting to exempt themselves from state public records laws as some expected.

The Hoosier State Press Association and Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors launched a public awareness campaign earlier this month, highlighting expectations that some state lawmakers may try to override the Gov. Frank O’Brannon’s veto of a bill they said would significantly undermine public records law in Indiana.

A simple majority vote is required from the Indiana General Assembly to override a veto by the governor.

According to a spokesman for House Speaker John Gregg (D-Sandborn), the issue did not arise at an organizing meeting Nov. 20. Respite for open-government advocates may end Jan. 7, however, when lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene.

“The legislature is poised to snub its nose at public access to its records,” said Michael Perkins, president of the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors. “The governor wisely determined this whole issue needed further study.”

House Bill 1083 was passed by the Assembly in April and vetoed by the governor on May 10. Among other provisions, the bill would “specify that the legislative branch is subject to the law to the extent provided in law or in its rules.”

Perkins said the bill would exempt state lawmakers from most of the Public Records Act, in addition to making it easier for them to craft more exemptions in the future. He said he is also concerned that the Assembly’s effort might tempt local governments to take similar measures.

“They are cooking up a worst case scenario for the public, but if the General Assembly entertains an exemption for themselves from the Public Records Act, it becomes case law for other government agencies,” Perkins said.

Debate about the bill began last session when lawmakers were discussing possible exemptions for e-mail correspondence under the Public Records Act, said Steve Key, a lobbyist for the Hoosier State Press Association.

“Some legislators felt that the correspondence they receive falls under an exemption for work product,” Key said.

When the assembly proposed a bill declaring e-mail between lawmakers and their constituents was confidential, the press association cried foul, he said.

The press group followed with a records request for e-mail spanning a two-week period, which lawmakers interpreted as a tactic used for intimidation, he said. Lawmakers responded by removing the language concerning Internet and e-mail usage, replacing it with language exempting the Assembly from much of the Public Records Act, Key said.

“It sends a bad message to the public about the General Assembly’s desire for open government,” Key said.


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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