Open government

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: April 29 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 2:40 pm in
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By Liz Mathis

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Self-government must include the right and means to know what your representatives are doing and why they are doing it. Today, Iowa Republicans and Democrats are working together to make that right a practical reality for average Iowans. Here are the details.

When government operates in the dark, a small number of people make big decisions without public oversight. Small problems can be ignored and overlooked. Without the check and balance provided by the public, bad decisions can cause much bigger, more serious problems down the road.

This is an area where Iowa is trying to do better.

Not long ago, our state received an “F” when it came to public access to information. Iowa’s lack of strong enforcement measures was a big reason that the national, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity gave Iowa a failing grade.

Our state’s turnaround effort got started last year. That’s when we created the Iowa Public Information Board. This new, nine-member state commission is composed of citizen advocates and journalists. This board is not intended to be just a sounding board for complaints. The Legislature gave it enforcement powers, the ability to levy fines and order corrective action.

Our goal was to put a group of experienced professionals with real power on the side of Iowans when officials failed to follow Iowa’s open government laws.

The goal was a good one. All we need to do now is fund it.

I appreciate the fact that Gov. Terry Branstad included sufficient funding for the commission in his fiscal year 2014 budget. As chair of the Senate Administration and Regulation Budget Subcommittee, I included $450,000 for the Public Information Board in our budget.

That’s enough to make this open government opportunity a reality. I’m especially supportive of hiring an executive director who is an attorney experienced in open meeting and public records laws. The entire Senate approved that budget on April 17, now House File 603.

Here’s the problem.

The Republican-led Iowa House recently voted to cut the Public Information Board’s budget to just $100,000. That’s almost 80 percent less than the bipartisan approach supported by Iowa’s Republican governor and Democratic-led Senate.

Iowa took a big step forward last year. Failing to follow through would be a major disappointment.

That’s why I’m asking Iowans to contact their state representatives. Please ask them to stand up for a strong Iowa democracy by standing with Gov. Branstad and the Iowa Senate.

Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids is a state senator from District 34. Comments: liz.mathis@legis.iowa.gov

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