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Open it up

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By Ralph Damiani

It was good to read that President Obama has ordered heads of executive departments and agencies to side with openness in administering the Freedom of Information Act.

“All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open government,” he wrote.

Good to hear. We hope the state was listening.

One of the topics that the Legislature is – again – considering is a law that would open conference committee meetings. Something that has been defeated time and time again.

Open government is not a media thing, it is not a newspaper thing, it is a citizen thing. Openness is goodness for all of us.

This measure has included by the governor in previous calls and he has consistently said if it comes to his desk, he will sign it.

At least 43 states open conference committees to the public in some form. None of those states has reported any significant problems or delays as the result of opening the meetings.

This is both an ethics and a freedom of information issue. Conference committees in effect make law by reconciling differing versions of a bill.

Joint legislative rules prohibit the conference committee from adding amendments to the bill “unless the item has been the subject of a legislative committee hearing during the session.”

That is very broad language that could be interpreted to include virtually anything discussed in public by a committee, including ideas rejected during the hearing.

On the other hand, the conference committee report must be adopted or rejected by the House and Senate as presented, without opportunity to amend. Thus differing versions of a bill go to conference committee and can be amended to include anything that might have been said during a committee hearing or to drop provisions of one or both bills.

But the House and Senate must accept or reject the final result as presented, without amendment, no matter how it has been changed. There are no minutes of conference committee meetings, nor are votes recorded, so the only people who know what happened in the locked room are the three senators and three representatives on the committee.

All too often, the bill that comes out of conference bears no resemblance to the bills that went in and there is no accountability as to why. This raises ethical questions and leaves the public in the dark.

There is pressure on the Legislature over ethics and good-government practices this year. Certainly opening conference committees to the public should be an integral part of this movement.

Contrary to lawmaker statements that opening conference committee meetings to the public will lengthen them, every proposal that has been offered has specified that there would be no public comments, only that the public could attend and observe. There is also no significant evidence of this happening in states with open conferences.

While legislators say they will just make back-room deals if conference committees are opened may or may not come to pass, they will at the very least have to go on record with their votes in the public meeting. That makes it much easier to discover a legislator’s motives or what back-room deals were made.

Government belongs to us and should be open.