The people who make Oklahoma's open government laws might soon have to follow those laws for the first time.
When legislators approved the state's open records and open meeting laws in 1977, part of the compromise to get the laws passed was to exempt the state Legislature.
House Bill 1085 would bind state lawmakers by rules similar to the open records and open meeting laws. It is expected to be voted on in the House soon, and if it passes there, will go to the Senate.
The bill's author, Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, said it would be appropriate if the measure was addressed during Sunshine Week, March 11-17.
Sunshine Week is a national effort to promote open government.
Oklahoma's open meeting law requires advance notice be given and agendas be published for meetings of school boards, city councils and every other public body in the state other than the Legislature. The open records law allows anyone to get a copy of most public records.
Murphey and State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, both saw those laws in action while working with municipal governments. Before joining the Legislature, Murphey was a city councilman in Guthrie, and Holt worked as chief of staff for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.
Both said they took the laws for granted until they saw what happened when they no longer applied. Oklahoma is one of three states that exempts the Legislature from its open records law and one of seven that exempts it from the open meeting law.
“It was a bit of a climate change coming to the Legislature,” Murphey said. “It just didn't feel right. It seems like one of those situations where the boss doesn't know what the employee does. People don't know what the Legislature is doing.”
Hard to track issues
Holt authored a similar bill in the Senate this session. It is dormant, but the Senate is expected to take up Murphey's bill if it passes the House.
Holt said he was shocked when he saw how little notice was given before legislative hearings. The scheduling makes it virtually impossible for interested voters to follow legislation, he said.
“Committee and floor schedules are often distributed with less than 24 hours notice,” Holt said.
“If as a citizen you really want to be a part of the process, you have to physically be in the building for days and weeks at a time. The bills that come up in committee and on the floor come up in undetermined order. Bills can even appear in committee that were not on the agenda at all.”
During his time working for Oklahoma City, Holt saw how city leaders persuaded voters to pass programs such as MAPS and MAPS for Kids. Transparency was a big selling point, and Holt said it was one of the main reasons city voters passed MAPS 3 in 2009.
“At Oklahoma City, as a citizen and a council member, you will have weeks to think about important decisions,” Holt said. “The nature of the state process is that you will have minutes or even seconds to think about something. You ought to be able to participate on a reasonable schedule and know when a bill that is important to you is being heard.”
Critics worry subjecting the Legislature to open meeting requirements will make it harder to get all the business done in the four-month legislative session. Some legislators also worry about their calendars and emails being open to the public.
The bill would not apply to caucus meetings and would maintain the confidentiality of correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents.
Rules apply to many
Murphey said similar rules apply to elected officials from local school boards all the way to the U.S. president. It doesn't make sense that lawmakers expect other government agencies to follow the law while they are exempt, he said.
“It's total hypocrisy,” Murphey said. “The people of Oklahoma get that. When you get right down to it, people don't like that this group of elected officials play by absolutely different rules.”
As for slowing down the process, Holt said that criticism may be true.
“But I'm at peace with that,” Holt said. “I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing if we slow things down. We do have a lot of issues on our plate, and we work on a compressed four-month calendar, but that doesn't mean we can't be more deliberate and open.”