Arkansas legislators are considering more than two dozen proposed laws that would limit the state's traditionally strong Freedom of Information Act, which opens most government meetings and records to public access.
Among information that would no longer be available: certain records of taxes collected under the state's Advertising and Promotion Commission Act and audit records of public colleges and universities.
about proposed legislation that would affect Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act can be found online at www.arkleg.state.ar.us/SearchCenter/Pages/historicalbil. aspx. In the box “search keywords … with the exact phrase,” enter “Freedom of Information.”
Open-government advocates say this legislative session has produced more bills than usual that directly aim to curb the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.
"For most of these bills, I would say the majority, the specific purpose is to create an exemption," said Tres Williams, a lobbyist for the Arkansas Press Association. In the past, such bills usually had a different central purpose and contained only a portion that affected public access to government records and actions.
In the past, "you could ask a legislator to pull a clause or section" that affected the Freedom of Information Act, Williams said. "But when a bill is specifically drawn to create a new exemption, we have to try to get legislators to pull the whole bill. Or we fight it."
The tug of war heightened this week during national Sunshine Week, an annual initiative by news organizations and other open-government groups nationwide to promote open access to federal, state and local governments.
Professor Robert Steinbuch, a Freedom of Information Act expert at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says he's "pretty cautious about adding new exemptions" to a strong public-records law like Arkansas' because it's not always clear what negative impact the changes might have.
Steinbuch said he particularly worries about measures like Senate Bill 892, which set out to amend the state's Freedom of Information Act to protect the privacy of retired and former state employees. It would withhold most information two months after the worker has left the job.
Sens. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, and Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, could not be reached late Wednesday to talk about the bill they sponsored. The bill is on the agenda of today's Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee session.
Steinbuch said that, based on his reading, the measure "seeks to shield virtually all employee information if the employee leaves the job. There is no reason to have a separate standard for former employees than current employees. Indeed, some employees leave office because of impropriety. This bill, if enacted, would likely shield that information from the very oversight by the public that the FOIA is designed to facilitate."
Another bill that had worried open-government advocates was introduced by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville. HB1691 would have made it a criminal offense for anyone to acquire personal information through state agencies without the person's permission.
Leding said he's heard concerns and won't try to push through the bill this session, but might resurrect it in the future.
"I don't want to weaken the FOIA laws," Leding said. "I do want to get all the concerns on the table. And addressing the concerns about FOIA are one issue I'm interested in."
About three dozen bills that would have affected the public-records law have been introduced since legislators convened in January, records show. Several have been withdrawn, tabled or amended.
Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act already has 22 amendments that prevent the public from seeing certain information, according to Williams.
"I've known states nearby that had FOIA laws that were considered strong, but have been exempted so many times that the law no longer holds water," Williams said. "That's what we're trying to avoid: death by 1,000 cuts."
Press Association executive director Tom Larimer said news media outlets are the "primary defenders of the Freedom of Information Act because it falls to us by default. So a lot of people think of the FOIA as the media's law. But it's not. It's the public's law.
"When this bill was passed [in 1967], the intended purpose was to ensure the public's business and the public's records remain open and accessible to the public," Larimer said.
Members of the public use the information more than many realize. Comparing property assessments in a homeowner's neighborhood, utility bills in a house considered for purchase or checking how a government body voted to raise taxes all require access to government meetings and records. Real estate agents and lawyers, along with news media organizations, are among the most frequent users of government records and meetings.
Larimer said he's been pleased by how many legislators have been open to talking about and making changes to bills that bother open-government advocates.
"But sometimes they dig their heels in," he said.
A Section on 03/19/2015
Print Headline: More than 24 bills seek to limit open-records law