Hey, can you guess which state bordering the Mississippi River, starting with the letter “I,” strengthened its freedom of information laws this year?
Iowa? Nope. An open meetings/open records law update stalled for the second straight year.
Actually, it’s Illinois, that bastion of clean government just to our east.
Illinois lawmakers approved a sweeping reform packagelast week that broadens the scope of the state’s FOI laws, sets out penalties for non-compliance, requires faster response to records requests and limits fees that can be charged for providing records, among other changes.
Of course, it took the impeachment of a sitting governor to shine a spotlight on Illinois’ ridiculously weak laws. But at least they took action.
What’s it going to take in Iowa?
“There are issues that are right, but not ripe,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, during a meeting last week with The Gazette’s editorial board. He arrived with House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque. To underscore party unity, they wore identical tan suits.
Actually, ripeness is not the issue. Leadership is the issue.
Murphy’s House colleagues gutted a Senate bill that would have created a much-needed enforcement board to assist Iowans who believe local government leaders are breaking the law. As of now, citizens’ only recourse is to mount a costly court fight.
The House, bowing to pressure from groups representing local county, city and school officials, took a meaningful bill and turned it into worthless window dressing. Representatives removed the enforcement board, replacing it with an “advisory” panel with no authority.
“I’d like to get back to the enforcement board,” Gronstal said. “That’s where we need to be.”
But rather than put up a fight for the Senate’s version, Gronstal let the issue die. Better luck next year. Remember, right but not ripe.
Murphy said the House was concerned that the enforcement board would be too expensive. Estimates placed the cost between $150,000 and $250,000. Times are hard. I understand. That $6.4 billion budget is tight.
But just think, we could have put teeth in Iowa’s open government laws for about what it cost special interest groups to wine and dine lawmakers during the 2009 session. That bill added up to $236,000.
Instead, we’re waiting. And I have a feeling that, like Illinois, we’ll have to find something rotten before things get “ripe.”