State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie / www.housedem.state.il.us
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, chief lieutenant to House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and a self-professed advocate of strong state disclosure laws, is sponsoring legislation that threatens to greatly damage the average citizen’s ability to fully use the crucial Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Moreover, Rep. Currie is rushing this measure through the General Assembly’s short-lived veto session that’s now underway without any open debate or significant discussion with organizations representing those who will be damaged by the changes proposed in SB 2799.
The BGA is asking its members and everyone who believes in open and fair government to contact Rep. Currie, along with their state representatives, and tell them to stop SB 2799 or to vote against it and any other anti-FOIA measure that comes before the General Assembly during veto session this week.
In addition to the BGA, the Office of the Attorney General is against passage of SB 2799. The BGA is joining the Attorney General and other consumer, legal and public interest groups opposing the measure.
“Lawmakers should be fighting to expand, modernize and strengthen FOIA and make Illinois a model for the rest of the country,” says Andy Shaw, the BGA CEO and president. “Unfortunately, this is moving in the wrong direction and it’s important for legislators to get back on the right course.”
The BGA’s legal and policy team have reviewed SB 2799, which was originally a health care bill but became a vehicle for Currie’s anti-FOIA effort. The BGA legal and policy staff believes this bill is poorly written, will cause more confusion regarding FOIA requests and threatens to hurt the disclosure process for everyone involved.
Here are some of the major concerns with SB 2799:
- Limits public’s access and options. The bill would make it much harder for everyday people to access the courts when public records are wrongfully denied.
- Damages ability to get legal representation. Everyday people, who can’t afford a lawyer to plead their FOIA case, will have a much tougher time getting legal representation. Unlike the government, which employs batteries of lawyers and law firms paid for with tax dollars, most everyday people can’t afford a lawyer to take their FOIA cases.
This bill would largely gut the provision of the law that requires the government to pay the requester’s legal fees if the court finds that the government violated FOIA. Government bodies could force a requester to engage in lengthy and expensive litigation and simply wait until the last minute to produce records to avoid paying attorney’s fees.
When the US Supreme Court rendered a decision similar to this bill a decade ago, the U.S. Congress stepped in and restored the public’s ability to get legal representation in federal FOIA cases.
- Encourages government denials. Passage of the bill would actually embolden more government bodies and agencies to deny access to information with little fear of it costing them anything.
- Discloses less to the public. The bill expands the kinds of records that don’t have to be disclosed including many documents that relate to the government’s decision-making process, in some cases even when the head of a government agency relies on part of a document to justify an important decision.
It’s uncertain why Rep. Currie is in such a rush and she has yet to reveal what problem her legislation is trying to solve.
What we do know is this: Illinois’ FOIA law is under attack from the General Assembly. Currie’s bill comes on the heels of the House override of Gov. Quinn’s veto of HB 3796, another anti-FOIA measure that was opposed by the BGA, the Attorney General and other public interest groups.
A veto override of HB 3796 is before the state Senate and we encourage senators to sustain Quinn’s veto.
As a practice, the BGA is against piecemeal legislation designed to fix perceived problems with state disclosure laws, especially FOIA, without any supporting documentation and widespread evidence that there’s a need to change a statewide law.
Instead of this approach, the BGA is again calling on the General Assembly to take a broader, more comprehensive, look at FOIA issues that have emerged in recent years and to include the BGA, and other public interest advocates and government officials, in that dialogue before pushing for ad hoc legislation like SB 2799.
MORE MEDIA COVERAGE ON SB 2799
FOIA Firestorm Sparked (WUIS)
Illinois lawmakers want to dismantle Freedom of Information Act (Chicago Tribune)
EDITORIAL: Bill is assault on government transparency (Northwest Times)
Our Opinion: Further weakening of Illinois’ sunshine laws unacceptable (The State Journal-Register)
A proposal to weaken Illinois’ open-records law fails (Columbia Journal Review)