Over the past few weeks, The Vindicator and other newspapers throughout Ohio have expressed outrage over a misplaced and misguided provision in the state’s 2014-15 spending plan that greatly expands the dome of secrecy for public officials. We also appealed to state legislators to strike that provision that further erodes Ohio’s open-meetings laws.
But alas, our outrage and our appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
On Thursday, the Ohio House of Representatives, by a 53-44 vote, and the Ohio Senate, by a 21-11 vote, approved the state’s $62 billion biennial budget with that provision still in place. Although it’s been slightly modified for the better, it remains repugnant.
The fate of the provision now rests literally in the hands of Gov. John R. Kasich. The governor should apply his power of line-item veto to this attack on transparency in government.
As we argued earlier this month, the amendment originally allowed secrecy for virtually any discussion with any remote ties to economic development. After the onslaught of protest in recent weeks, however, lawmakers narrowed the scope by enumerating more specific areas of economic development for which public meetings could be closed.
We continue to argue that even the softened version of the measure is a pill too hard for Ohioans to swallow.
As the Ohio Newspaper Association argues in an emergency alert it sent to Kasich, current exemptions to the state’s open-meetings law suffice. Statutes already allow public bodies to go into executive session to discuss real-estate transactions, share trade secrets, review development plans for a port authority, or to share any information that state and federal regulations require be kept confidential. They provide an appropriate balance between businesses’ desire for caution and the public’s right to know what their elected representatives are doing.
PHILOSOPHICAL, PRACTICAL REASONS
Kasich and other Republicans might argue that the provisions are good for business leaders, who might be more comfortable exploring potential developments outside of public view.
But philosophically speaking, private business interests should not trump the long-standing right of the public to monitor the workings of their representatives, particularly on such a hot-button issue as economic development that could cost residents millions in tax abatements and other lures.
Practically speaking, one can look at some surrounding states that have more strict closed-meeting provisions and see no correlation between job growth and government secrecy. Indiana, for example, has more open-meetings exceptions than Ohio, yet it trails the Buckeye State in important indicators of economic health.
The good governor repeatedly touts that Ohio leads the nation in job growth. Apparently current strategies must be working well, so no dramatic changes should be necessary.
Finally, the governor should veto the provision because of the flawed fast-track process that the amendment made its way toward passage.
Any proposal that tinkers with the public’s rightful access to their government merits robust debate in a separate piece of legislation, not the passing glance it received in a bill designed to outline state spending. The budget bill indeed became a convenient dumping ground for everything from insensitive attacks on women’s rights to abortions to the exemption of spider monkeys from the state’s exotic animals law.
In the long term, that underhanded process of packaging non-budgetary policies in state budgets needs to be reined in by Ohio legislators.
In the short term, the attack on open government dumped into this biennial budget needs to be struck by Monday’s budget deadline.
Kasich can achieve that public-spirited end with one simple stroke of his pen.