The state legislature this week passed two very important bills on to Gov. Phil Bryant for his consideration.
Both S.B. 2507 and H.B. 928 make significant needed improvements to Mississippi’s so-called “Sunshine laws.” They’re known that way here and across the nation because of their purpose to increase transparency in government.
The Senate bill gives limited power to the Mississippi Ethics Commission to enforce the state Public Records Act; the House measure puts in place limitations on what can be charged for labor and materials while accessing public records at your local courthouse, city hall or elsewhere.
Groups such as the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information, state press association and other advocacy groups have been scrapping for these improvements for years. It goes back, for sure, beyond the eight years I have worked with the Mississippi Press Association.
But, this session was different. Both bills passed the legislature by wide margins. They’re now awaiting the governor’s signature.
So what happened? What changed previous opposition and apathy at the Capitol and resulted in these bills passing almost unanimously this year?
Sometimes, there is little explanation for the mercurial proclivities of a legislature. What is kosher one year may be off limits the next, and vice versa. Regardless, I have been told more than once not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
It’s worth pointing out that when Bryant was elected as governor in 2011, one of his campaign promises was to increase transparency in state government.
As a chronic skeptic and former journalist, I’ve on more than one occasion wondered if he and I shared the same definition for what that would mean. But the passage of these two bills are an undeniable strengthening of the Open Meetings and Public Records Acts that were passed into law three decades ago.
Enacting S.B. 2507 makes good sense: It extends to the Ethics Commission similar power over matters of public records it already holds over the Open Meetings Act. The commission currently can make decisions and impose penalties for instances of violating the open meetings law. The commission serves as a vital intermediary that in some cases prevents the need for costly litigation.
But when Mississippians file complaints to the commission over perceived Public Records Act violations, state Ethics Commissioner Tom Hood and his team are only allowed to issue advisory opinions in cases. The tiger really didn’t have any teeth.
Now, when the bill becomes law, they’ll be able to make decisions and impose penalties in instances where government officials or agencies are found to have acted in error or, worse, in outright violation of the law.
According to an Associated Press story, the Ethics Commission has issued 42 opinions in public records complaint cases in the last six years. But, whatever the crux of those opinions, they were merely that – only opinions.
“We don’t have any authority to subpoena or review disputed documents,” Hood told AP reporter Jeff Amy.
That evidently is about to change.
H.B. 928 is not a perfect bill by any estimation, and more work is needed to make access to public records less of a hassle for those who need and want to know more about the people in and business of government.
Both bills passed on the eve of Sunshine Week, March 16-22, a time when advocacy groups such as MCFOI and its brethren across the country call attention to the need for greater transparency in government.
It suitably falls each year around the birthday of President James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights.
This year, Mississippians who believe in the public’s right to know the business of government can celebrate a couple of vital steps forward for increasing “sunshine” in Mississippi.
There’s still a long way to go. But we’re getting there.
This week, at least, Gov. Bryant, freedom of information advocates and, indeed, the public at large, can bask in a little more sunshine.
(Layne Bruce is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association. Find out more about Sunshine Week at sunshineweek.org.)