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Impact statements illuminate open records exemptions

Oregon lawmakers have a long way to go to clean up and reinvigorate the state’s public records laws, but some progress is being made. A case in point is The Associated Press story on Tuesday’s front page: “Lawmakers consider bills to limit public records access.”

That may sound counterintuitive. This newspaper and others regularly advocate for more public access to records, not less. But that story is a sign of progress because not long ago it would have been much more difficult to report, if not impossible.

One of the recent reforms in state public records laws is a requirement that the Legislative Counsel’s Office prepare an open-government impact statement for every bill introduced. That requirement was passed in 2017, part of the same bill that created the Oregon Sunshine Committee, tasked with reviewing public disclosure exemptions.

Those exemptions now number more than 500, scattered willy-nilly throughout state statutes. It is the Sunshine Committee’s job to go through them, looking for any that may be outdated or in need of repeal.

One of the reasons the exemptions got so numerous and hard to find was the lack of any tracking system. Thanks to the new impact statements, reporters for the Statesman Journal in Salem were able to quickly determine that, of the more than 2,500 bills introduced in the 2019 Legislative session, about 80 were considered by the Legislature’s lawyers to have an impact on public access to records.

Once those were identified, it was a simple matter to determine that about half had died in committee. The remaining 46 bills would affect records in a wide variety of ways, from exempting some aspects of state investigations to protecting the names and addresses of multi-state lottery jackpot winners.

Not every exemption proposed is necessarily a bad thing. Many reasonable people would agree that lottery winners should be able to remain anonymous if they wish; the same goes for the subjects of state investigations that don’t result in criminal charges or other sanctions.

Arguments can be make for and against any number of proposed exemptions. The important thing is to have that discussion in the open, with everyone fully aware of the potential consequences.

Open-government impact statements shine a little more light into the dark corners of the legislative process, and that’s a good thing.