Divided House panel approves new public records exemptions for legislators, public officials

From the Idaho Press

by BETSY Z. RUSSELL

BOISE — A divided House State Affairs Committee on Friday narrowly approved HB 601, the bill from Rep. Megan Blanksma to amend the Idaho Public Records Act to add new exemptions for lawmakers and public officials.

Blanksma, R-Hammett, told the committee the bill was intended to “tighten up” the law, because it takes “a massive amount of time” for government, including the Legislature, to respond to public records requests.

“This is to help you in your drafting process, to keep that out of the public eye when you’re trying to develop those ideas,” she told the lawmakers on the committee.

The bill includes new exemptions for the personal notes of any public official in Idaho that haven’t been shared with others, including the governor; research requests by legislators to legislative staff, including documents developed as a result; personal information, including names, in constituent communications to lawmakers; and communications between lawmakers that aren’t about public business. It also requires more specificity, including a specified date range, for all future public records requests.

Matt Davison, publisher of the Idaho Press, spoke against the bill on behalf of the Newspaper Association of Idaho.

“The laws we have in place are good, they’ve been tested over time, they’ve been backed up in courts multiple times,” Davison told the committee. “It seems to me we have a system that works and has worked.”

He added, “We don’t want to hamper you from doing your job. But we want to make sure that there are open records.”

Ken Burgess, lobbyist for the Idaho Press Club, also spoke in opposition to the bill. He thanked Blanksma for showing him and the club’s 1st Amendment Committee early versions of the bill, saying, “It is a softer version of the first couple that we saw, and I think we appreciate that.”

But Burgess said some of the new exemptions proposed in the bill were problematic. For example, Idaho Education News published a story about a publicly-announced meeting between the governor and the state schools superintendent, after requesting the governor’s notes from the meeting under the Public Records Act, which were willingly provided. That could no longer happen under the proposed bill.

The new exemptions aimed at the process of developing and drafting legislation are particularly troublesome, Burgess said. “Our experience has been in recent years, that the Legislature has been more willing to share that type of information … than it has been historically, and we’d like to keep that in place.”

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“In the end, that’s where the sausage-making really occurs with regards to public legislation, and we believe the public ought to have a right to know the ingredients that went into that sausage,” Burgess said.

Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, moved to send the bill to the full House with a recommendation that it “do pass.” The motion carried on a divided voice vote with slightly less than half the committee dissenting. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, asked to be recorded as voting “no.”

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, said, “I’m actually really torn on this for a number of reasons. … There’s some parts I don’t think go far enough, and some … go too far. … I do believe that sometimes the media does go overboard and as a result hurt people.”

To become law, the bill still would need passage in the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature.

From the Idaho Press

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