Sunshine law should apply to Legislature
A modest but sensible proposal to apply the basic rules of the state's open-meetings, or "sunshine," law to the activities of the state Legislature appears dead again this year.
This is a farce — the Legislature is again unwilling to be held to the law designed to protect transparency and inspire public confidence in government. Sadly, it suggests that lawmakers are more interested in their own convenience than the rights and interests of the public that put them in office.
It is not too late to reverse this decision. The measure, Senate Bill 1062, is being held in the Senate Judiciary Committee. If enough public pressure is applied, there are ways the bill could be brought out for a full public discussion.
Let's be clear. The activities of the Legislature are not conducted entirely in secret or in violation of basic sunshine principles. The Legislature has its own open-meetings and records rules that govern its activities and offer a measure of public access.
But it is all on sufferance; legislators can change the rules to their liking at any time. And many of the improvements to that policy that have occurred over the years have come only after substantial pressure from the public, from public-interest groups and even from lawmakers themselves who feel shut out of the process.
This bill would have put a law on the books that requires that basic sunshine rules apply to the Legislature, just as they do to other public agencies. It would create a somewhat tougher standard than what is in place today, where legislative rules can be changed at whim by whomever is in the majority.
Among other things, the bill would require 48-hour notice for public hearings, require recorded votes on second and third reading agendas and would require a majority to suspend any legislative rule.
At that, this is a modest measure: It simply asks the Legislature to give the force of law to rules that embody the basic principles of the sunshine law.
A far more direct approach would be to apply the full open-meetings and open-records or sunshine law to all legislative activities. That day, unhappily, appears to be a long way off.
Would some of these changes be inconvenient? At times, certainly.
Would there be circumstances where both efficiency and public interest would be served by ramming things through without the details of sunshine principles getting in the way? Possibly. And there are ways to take into account extraordinary emergency circumstances.
The bottom line is that lawmakers have concluded that the open-government requirements of the sunshine law are good enough for other government bodies, both appointed and elected. This includes the four county councils.
Those requirements should be good enough for the Legislature itself.
It's time to shed more light on how business is done at the state Legislature — no more business as usual. Contact your local legislator or members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and tell them to let the bill move ahead.