President’s Column: Some wins in our column for Sunshine Week

By Betsy Russell

Happy Sunshine Week, everyone! That’s the week each March when, nationwide, we celebrate openness in government and access to public information. And here in Idaho, we’ve had some gains in that area, including a unanimous House vote – 70-0 – just yesterday in favor of expanding the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

That bill, HB 273, would add boards, commissions or councils created by executive order to the law; it now heads to the Senate. We’re hoping it becomes law.

“We go to great lengths as public officials … that we hold open meetings,” Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the bill’s sponsor, told the House. “We are subject to the Open Meetings Law in Idaho. Sometimes it’s not very comfortable, Mr. Speaker, to do all of our business in public, but it’s the right thing to do.”

“We’ve always assumed that virtually everything that government does in the state of Idaho is open to the public, and always operated with that assumption,” he said. “However, we discovered that there is just a little flaw in our law, that unwittingly exempts certain agencies that are created by executive order from the Open Meetings Law. It wasn’t intended to be that way, should not be that way.”

Loertscher said, “This is something that we need to do.” The most common reaction he said he’s gotten to the proposal has been, “You mean, it’s not that way? This corrects something that needs to be done.”

That is far from the only proposal this session that affects public records or open meetings. Our Idaho Press Club First Amendment Committee, chaired by Clark Corbin, has been very busy, with help from our excellent volunteer lobbyist, Skip Smyser.

Among the developments: Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, proposed a sweeping new public records exemption to make legislators’ communications, including emails, texts, correspondence and more, secret. After an outcry, Barbieri decided not to proceed with the bill.

A proposal from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, for a new public records exemption to hide the identity of anyone who wins $600 or more in the Idaho Lottery passed the House, but died in a Senate committee after negative testimony from Smyser, Newspaper Association of Idaho lobbyist Jeremy Pisca, and Idaho Lottery Director Jeff Anderson.

The state Board of Education proposed problematic provisions in a student data privacy bill that would have impacted journalists’ public records requests for such basic education data as test scores and enrollment information; we worked with them, and thus far, it hasn’t been pursued.

We’ve also reviewed numerous other proposals for their impacts on open meetings or public records, and weighed in when need be; our hard-working committee meets weekly during the legislative session to keep tabs on it all.

Thanks again to Skip, Clark, and everyone on the committee – we’ll keep up the fight!

Betsy Russell is a Boise-based reporter for The Spokesman-Review, and is the president of the Idaho Press Club.