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A win and loss for government openness in Iowa
We’ve received good news and bad news in recent days with regard to government transparency.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled a lawsuit filed by journalists and open government advocates over Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration’s failure to fulfill open records requests in a timely manner can move forward. Administration officials slow-walked requests and took up to 18 months to release requested public records.
Reynolds argued that because some of the records were eventually released, the lawsuit should not move forward. She also argued Iowa’s open records law lacks a timeliness requirement and. even if it did. it would not apply to the governor. She argued the courts have no role in ruling on “political questions” involving how her staff fulfills requests. Reynolds even argued that it was the pandemic that prompted delays in records requests.
The Supreme Court didn’t buy it.
"An interpretation that condones unlimited delay would hamper the 'free and open examination of public records,'"Justice David May wrote in the court’s ruling.
The ruling sends the lawsuit back to district court and provides an indication that arguments by the plaintiffs, journalists Laura Belin and Clark Kauffman, and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, will prevail.
But on Monday night and early Tuesday morning, Republicans who control the Iowa Senate dealt a major blow to transparency.
During a debate on legislation weakening child labor laws in Iowa, Republicans refused to answer questions about the bill posed by Democratic lawmakers. Republicans pointed to a March Iowa Supreme Court Ruling that took GOP lawmakers to task for passing a bill in the 2020 session’s final hours giving a competitive advantage to electric transmission companies already operating in Iowa over other firms.
The court criticized lawmakers for “logrolling,” the practice of loading down a bill with a “potpourri” of unrelated measures to get them passed. Under the Iowa Constitution, “Every act shall embrace but one subject, and matters properly connected therewith; which subject shall be expressed in the title.”
They also criticized the bill’s floor manager, former state Sen. Michael Breitbach, for giving misleading answers when questioned about the bill’s origins on the Senate floor.
Rather than make sure floor managers understand bills and give honest answers, the Senate GOP is opting to no longer answer questions from Democrats.
Transparency shouldn’t be a partisan issue. All Iowans deserve access to records and every lawmaker serves all residents in their districts and should be answering questions routinely, including during floor debate.
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