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Sunshine Bills Slow Going in General Assembly

by Andrea Zelinski on March 17, 2012

While lawmakers juggle issues like gun rights, the state budget and teaching about homosexuality in Tennessee schools, they’re also talking about whether and how to shine more light on the inner workings of state government.

“The idea of transparency is sometimes less transparency than opaque. If you can’t see through it, it’s not transparent,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Here’s the status update on some prominent open government bills:

ECD Secrecy, SB2207/HB2345: The sexiest transparency issue this year is a move allowing the Department of Economic Development to ask for, then make secret, insider details about businesses seeking government handouts. The administration says the extra info will help them make better decisions, but the bill’s hit a major snag. Lawmakers are now behind the scenes working out the sticking point: whether businesses should have to publicly reveal the owners of the company getting thousands to millions of taxpayers dollars. There’s been no movement on that issue for weeks, and so far, officials say there’s nothing new to report.

Phoning It In, SB2723/HB2883: This measure would allow local school board members to phone in their attendance by “attending” and voting at meetings electronically if they’re out of town for work, a family emergency or military service. The board still needs a quorum physically present to conduct business. This passed the Senate 26-6, but the issue got caught up in the House after lawmakers argued other boards will want to do the same. Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, says he’s OK with this bill. “Anything they do in the open, we’re for. The alternative is a lot worse,” he said. The House will pick it up again March 22.

Bill Authors Anonymous, SB3667/HB2301: The minority party wants lawmakers to point out bills handed to them from outside interest groups. While the proposed “Influence Disclosure Act” would apply to both parties, the Republicans quickly killed the bill in a House subcommittee earlier this month. “This is a bad bill … horrible bill, really,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Memphis, who sits on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s board of directors, which has handed Tennessee lawmakers a handful of controversial bills in the last few years. “I know what it’s getting back at. It’s getting back at ALEC, that’s what it’s designed to do,” he said before voting against it.

Governments on the Interwebs, SB2832/HB3328: This one would require county, city and school districts to post loads of public documents and information on their websites. The move also would pave the way to publishing public notices on websites rather than in local newspapers. While the measure would increase government transparency, it has a $10 million price tag to those local governments. That includes the cost to develop websites for 167 government bodies that have yet to build a website of their own. “This is the first year that we’ve had bills to open things up. It’s sort of a new experience for us,” Gibson said. Lawmakers have pushed this bill until the last meeting of State and Local Government committee in both houses.

Virtual Pinboard, SB3430/HB3797: There’s a slow push to move a variety of public notices off newspaper pages and onto government websites. Lawmakers studied the issue last year, but it hasn’t moved much this spring. Instead, lawmakers thought about easing into posting notices online by starting simply with announcements about sunset hearings on professional oversight boards. If passed, those notices would be posted to the state Comptroller’s and the General Assembly’s website, but the sponsors to that bill have taken it off notice.

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