POSTED ON MARCH 17, 2010:
Through the Glass, Darkly
It's not really clear what some state legislators mean by "transparency"
Today's lesson in Oklahoma Politics 101 focuses on terminology.
No one is quite sure how it happens, but -- like a bolt out of the blue -- lawmakers often will get stuck on a certain buzzword, repeating it over and over, ad nauseam.
For the record, Webster defines "buzzword" as "a word or phrase used by members of some in-group, having little or imprecise meaning but sounding impressive to outsiders."
In the Oklahoma Legislature, the buzzword du jour is "transparency" -- as in "this legislation will lift the veil of secrecy so that all Oklahomans can see what is really happening in the smoke-filled rooms of power."
I would add to Webster's citation: See also: "Baloney."
If I had a dollar for every time I've heard "transparency" invoked by lawmakers whose actions are anything but transparent, I could retire early to Hawaii and spend my days sipping Mai Tais.
Yes, I'm aware the Legislature and the governor joined forces to create the state's Open Books Web site ( HYPERLINK "http://www.ok.gov/okaa/"; www.ok.gov/okaa/), a nifty vehicle to track, for example, how state tax dollars are spent -- though it's a shame neither the House or Senate home pages promote it or link to it.
At the same time, state lawmakers are congratulating themselves for Open Books, however, they all-too-often are taking steps to limit -- or block altogether -- access to routine meetings or records that the public deserves to know about, attend or review in a timely manner.
For example, state lawmakers are arbitrating a battle over the confidentiality of public employees' birth dates. News media want access to the records, noting that reporters often cross-reference birth dates with other public records like criminal convictions to help ensure public safety. However, the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and several law enforcement groups are fighting to block access, warning it would invade the privacy of public workers and could increase their exposure to identity theft.
The state Senate last month unanimously approved Senate Bill 1753 -- by Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City -- that would keep birth dates confidential. Home addresses, telephone numbers and Social Security numbers of public employees already are confidential. Leftwich's measure now awaits action in the House.
As a victim several years ago of identify theft, I'm not unsympathetic to the concerns of public employees. But senators jumped on the keep-it-secret bandwagon way too fast -- without extended discussion of how best to protect the public's right to know who is working for them.
Even Senate President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, who voted for the measure, said he probably would vote differently, given another chance. And state Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, the legislation's House sponsor, said he is working to strike a balance between the individual worker's right to privacy and the public's right to know.
At least twice already this year, the House approved measures that would exempt proposed task forces from the state's Open Meeting Act -- meaning the panels could operate behind closed doors, in secret, without public scrutiny. There would be no way to determine whether their research and analysis was thorough and fair or half-baked and biased.
It is beyond appalling that one of the task forces that would be exempt from the Open Meeting Act -- and from the Open Records Act -- is designed to tackle what may be the most important issue confronting state lawmakers this year: the explosion of tax incentives and tax credits that have undermined, if not destroyed, state government's revenue base.
As I've argued previously, it's way past time for Oklahoma to seriously review the more than 450 tax breaks in state law that carve $5.6 billion in potential revenues from the state's budget. That's almost as much as the state expects to have available to spend in the entire 2010-11 fiscal year.
With suspicions growing that many of the business incentives are of dubious value, the task force proposed by Rep. Skye McNiel, R-Bristow, could be invaluable -- if it's not window-dressing -- to help the state avoid more draconian cuts in the short term and create a fairer tax system in the long term.
It's preposterous -- downright brazen, in fact -- that a straight-faced McNiel would assert during House debate, "This bill is about transparency." Yes, it includes a sentence stating the task force "shall provide a reasonable notice of its meetings at least seven (7) days prior to a meeting." But specifically exempting the task force from the open meeting and open records requirements invites mischief of the worst kind and undermines the task force's credibility. And besides, since when is it acceptable to study, review and debate state tax policy behind closed doors?
"This would be funny if it wasn't so serious," said state Rep. Mike Reynolds, R-Oklahoma City, who regards many of the tax incentives as a "redistribution of wealth, pure and simple."
Reynolds, often dismissed as nothing more than a cantankerous gadfly, is correct when he argues that exempting the task force from the open meeting and open records laws is the equivalent of saying to the public "trust me ... because the task force studied it."
If McNiel were serious about "transparency," she would have agreed to remove the exemptions on the spot, avoiding any potential for misunderstanding. Instead, she bowed her neck and insisted the exemptions are nothing more than "typical task force language."
While it's not unprecedented for lawmakers to include one or both exemptions (see House Bill 2731, the proposed "Any Willing Institute Task Force" by Rep. Wade Rousselot, D-Wagoner), other task force-creating legislation doesn't attempt to undermine such transparency (see House Bill 2584, the proposed "Oklahoma School Testing Program Review Task Force" by Reps. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, and Ed Cannaday, D-Porum).
It's a sad day when the word "transparency" is nothing more than a verbal sleight-of-hand designed to hoodwink state residents into thinking their elected leaders are devoted to openness in government.
In a recent e-mail, I asked Dr. Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University journalism professor and Freedom of Information Oklahoma, Inc. board member, whether there are more efforts than ever to thwart access to public meetings and documents -- or if it just seems that way.
"Seems like a never-ending battle to me," he responded. "Each legislative session, the bills attempting to restrict the public's right to know far outweigh the bills to strengthen our Open Records and Open Meeting laws.
"The public's need to know is ignored. That will change only when politicians think voters care."
How is the public supposed to hold its elected officials accountable if meetings are closed and records are sealed?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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