From the Arkansas Statehouse...

FOI bill defeated in House.

In Dan Greenberg, Dustin McDaniel, FOI on 13 February 2009 at 6:21 pm

One of this session’s simmering battles has seen Rep. Dan Greenberg and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel matched against each other. Rep. Greenberg has introduced a series of expansions and refinements to the Freedom of Information Act; McDaniel has vocally opposed at least two of the changes on the grounds that they would be too difficult to administer.

McDaniel won round one today when the House defeated Rep. Greenberg’s bill to allow greater access to the criminal records of elected officials, agency heads and candidates for office. At 33-56, the vote adhered largely to ideological lines, with a contingent of conservative-leaning representatives providing the yeas. 11 members sat this one out. (Rep. Greenberg has posted an account of the affair.) 

This is a rather confusing result. FOI need not be a partisan issue. Yet when it becomes one, Democrats are usually more supportive of greater sunshine. (There was a similar reversal of roles this week when a number of Democrats sided with energy companies on the issue of using eminent domain to lay gas pipelines.) 

An explanation for the partisan split might be found in the campaign McDaniel, a Democrat, waged against the FOI measure. Besides giving oppositional testimony in committee, McDaniel distributed a letter to legislators urging them to vote against the bill, Rep. Greenberg writes in his post. I’d speculate that McDaniel’s note had some influence with Democratic members. 

Another argument circulating in a House memo was that the bill got out of the House Judiciary Committee inadvertently. Rep. Greenberg disputed that on the floor today. I missed the committee debate early in the week, but Judiciary chairman Rep. Steve Harrelson told me the bill came up late in the meeting when some committee members were gone. 

Rep. Greenberg has acquired something of a reputation for grandstanding on the FOI issue, but I’m not so sure. I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt after seeing the changes he made in the most recent version of his criminal-record bill. The amended bill sought to meet administrators’ concerns by charging a fee for information. It also would have narrowed the time frame during which one could request criminal information about a political candidate. 

Ironically for a sunshine bill, this measure appeared to get cut down partially because legislators were sick of openly debating its provisions. (The full House refused to send it back to committee for amendment earlier this week.) It’s a frustrating situation for an observer, because one of the fascinating things about covering the session is weighing policy arguments that go into each law. But it’s also an instructive one, especially as the lottery gets hashed out behind closed doors. The crux of lawmaking often isn’t the methodical consideration of ideas — it’s having the right personality and the right friends to get your ideas heard.

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