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2/23/2012 9:01:00 AM
Bills to add fines for officials violating Open Door laws in jeopardy

Maribeth Vaughn, Daily Reporter

INDIANAPOLIS — A bill that would fine public officials who deliberately violate the state’s transparency laws is in jeopardy.

Two transparency bills have died in the Indiana General Assembly, but there is still hope to revive one if it is inserted into another bill after problems have been ironed out.

House Bill 1093 did not have a hearing as scheduled Wednesday due to questions over how the bill would impact legislators themselves.

Sen. Beverly Gard, R-Greenfield, is a sponsor of the bill, and she wrote one identical to it, Senate Bill 92.

Proponents say the bills would put teeth into the state’s Open Door Law and Access to Public Records Act because a judge could levy a fine of up to $100 against a public official who deliberately violates the law.

Both bills have garnered bipartisan support throughout the session – until about two weeks ago.

Steve Key, general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association, said when Senate Bill 92 was up for a third hearing in the Senate, Sen. Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, asked questions over whether the bill would protect constituent mail to lawmakers.

That snowballed into more questions over work product of legislators, which could include documents and records for legislation.

S.B. 92 died, Key said. The questions could not be ironed out in time for Wednesday’s committee hearing on the House version, so it was not heard. That killed the House bill, but Key said there’s still a chance to save it, if the language from the bill can be placed in another bill advancing in the Legislature.

“It’s still hard to tell (whether it could pass),” Gard said. “It was going along so smoothly there until this thing just happened. It kind of took us by surprise because we really were not prepared for it.”

The HSPA supports the legislation, as it has for many years. Key said he is working with leaders from both the House and Senate to get questions answered.

“I was very surprised when it initially came up because the concept … is going into the fifth legislative session and it’s never come up before,” Key said.

At issue is how documents used by lawmakers themselves will be affected by the law, and whether legislators could be subject to fines.

State statute declares work product to be exempt from the Access to Public Records Act, Key said. But what is deemed work product is still in question.

Key said constituent correspondence has long been considered confidential because it protects the citizens’ right to petition government. Still, he said, there’s nothing in state statute that deems constituent correspondence exempt from the public records act.

Key believes the bill would have little impact on legislators. That’s because of the Indiana Supreme Court’s position that the court will not enforce public access laws against the General Assembly, based on a principle of separation of powers.

Still, he said there might be hesitancy because of fines against House Democrats for walking out last year.

“How this bill would impact the Legislature is minimal, at best,” he said.

Key said he met with House leadership Wednesday on the bill and is hoping to work with Senate leaders as well. The language of the bill may be tweaked to exempt work product as it stands in state statute – as documents and records created for legislation.

Key said the language may then be added to another bill in conference committee, and then it could become law.

Related Stories:
• EDITORIAL: Transparency and sunlight
• EDITORIAL: Public access bill deserves approval
• EDITORIAL: Keep barking for teeth in public access laws

Copyright 2015 Daily Reporter

Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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