A bill that supporters hoped would make government more transparent has hit a wall because it tried to do too many things.
Gov. Mike Pence vetoed Senate Enrolled Act 369 because it would have allowed a government agency to charge up to $20 per hour if employees spent more than two hours researching a citizen’s request for public records.
“I vetoed SEA 369 over (the) fee for public records searches,” Pence said in a brief explanation. “The cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know.”
The bill also required local governments and school corporations to post their records of spending, salaries, debt and fund balances on a state website. That’s what co-sponsor state Rep. Dennis Zent, R-Angola, liked about the bill.
“I am disappointed to learn that Gov. Pence has vetoed SEA 369, a bill I felt would have increased government accountability and transparency,” Zent said in a statement.
“The legislation I sponsored would have held local governments and school corporations more accountable to taxpayers by requiring them to provide information about their balances and expenditures, which would be posted on Indiana’s transparency website. This was meant to be a protection for Hoosiers interested in how their |tax dollars are being spent at the local level,” Zent added.
“If I would have been made aware of the governor’s concerns earlier on in the legislative process, I could have worked to remedy a solution,” Zent concluded. “I am disheartened that this transparency measure was vetoed. It has always been my hope to do what is right for taxpayers and my district; I plan to work on this legislation again in the future.”
The bill touched on three main topics, all of them related. But the section about chargingfor public records searches poisoned it in Pence’s eyes.
Lawmakers who supported that part of the bill believed a fee could discourage nuisance requests or vague searches that could take up extensive time for public employees.
It’s likely that most requests for records take far less than two hours of employee time. Few Hoosiers would have been burdened by the fee set up by the bill.
But Pence follows sound logic in taking an absolute stance that every search for public records should be free of charge. It’s dangerous to start deciding which requests for public records are nuisances and which are legitimate. In whose eyes?
If a public official really didn’t want the public to see a certain, potentially embarrassing record, a fee system could lead to foot-dragging in order to run up fees to the person making the request.
An occasional expensive search may be annoying, but it’s the price of keeping information available. Almost every rule about open government could sometimes be less convenient or more expensive than secrecy.
The bill also contained a section that was friendly to people asking for public records. It said if a public record is available in electronic format, a citizen could request it in electronic or in paper form.
Legislators have the option to override Pence’s veto when they reconvene June 8.
But lawmakers should wait until next year and bring back the best parts of the bill — without the controversial search fees. Pence is right to insist that searching for information should be free.
This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to email@example.com.