They're skimping on sunshine

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A state board created to stand up for more openness might get kneecapped even before it gets on its feet.

The Iowa Public Information board has been appointed, but it’s still awaiting funding. Gov. Terry Branstad put $490,000 in his Fiscal Year 2014 budget to get the board going on July 1. It’s not exactly a mountain of money, by state government standards, but it is enough to hire three staff members and pay for office space.

And yet, apparently, it’s still too much money for the Iowa House, which sliced its budget down to $100,000. The Iowa Senate may put some bucks back into the board’s budget, so there’s still hope. But this should have been a slam dunk.

The board is supposed to assist citizens with complaints about local governments running afoul of open records and meetings laws. Investigating costs money. “We can’t do much of anything for $100,000,” said Bill Monroe, the board’s chairman, on Monday.

Everybody involved knew how much the board would cost back when lawmakers created it, after years of dithering and delay. So the House action is a puzzling reversal, especially with the state sitting on a billion-dollar budget surplus.

Money isn’t the only issue. Bills filed in the House and Senate would give the information board and the Iowa Citizens’ Aide Ombudsman access to recordings and transcripts from closed government meetings, without seeking a court order. Several interests are lined up against the bills, including some of the same groups representing local governments that opposed creation of the information board. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office, in particular, opposes allowing the ombudsman access to the closed-door deliberations of state professional licensing boards, such as panels that watch dentists, doctors and veterinarians.

Deputy Attorney General Eric Tabor says the “very broad” bills would discourage licensing board members from freely expressing their views during deliberations, for fear of disclosure. “These are good-natured people who are doing this without pay, trying to reach good decisions,” he said on Monday. The Des Moines Register also chronicled this issue with a Sunday story.

Sure, but other good-natured people also need strong advocates on their side when boards make mistakes. And those advocates should have access to as much information as possible, including closed meeting records. Lawmakers are working on a compromise bill. We'll see what happens.

Still, the “discomfort” argument, rolled out early and often as a case against openness, isn’t persuasive. It’s state-sanctioned secrecy that should make all of us uncomfortable.

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