Gov. Sanders signs FOIA bill, says she is not finished with ‘government efficiency’

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,389 views 

Gov. Sarah Sanders speaks about the Special Session Thursday before signing approved legislation into law. To the left is Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs and Senate president, and on the right is Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado and House Speaker.

A vastly different bill amending the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) than what she initially wanted has been signed by Gov. Sarah Sanders. The Arkansas House and Senate approved this week FOIA changes that address only a governor’s travel records.

The Arkansas General Assembly was called into Special Session on Monday (Sept. 11) to consider bills related to tax rate changes and what was then a bill that included broad changes to the state’s FOIA.

Gov. Sanders initially asked for a bill that would change FOIA provisions by including the federal exemption that would significantly limit the information available about the deliberations of officials at state agencies, recommendations about policy, and other governance matters. She said at the time the effort was about making the government more efficient.

The original bill would also exempt from FOIA any records about “planning or provision of security services provided to the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State, the Auditor of State, the Treasurer of State, the Commissioner of State Lands, members of the General Assembly, Justices of the Supreme Court, or Judges of the Court of Appeals.”

The security issue primarily involves details about who uses the state plane, which is operated by the Arkansas State Police (ASP). The plane is used by Arkansas governor’s to travel in state. Travel records related to the plane are part of a lawsuit filed by Little Rock attorney Matt Campbell to seek records requested per the FOIA from the ASP. The lawsuit was dismissed for reasons not related to the validity of the case.

The bill eventually approved in both chambers includes only the security provisions and a retroactivity clause that makes the exemptions retroactive to June 1, 2022. The previous bills had the retroactive provision at Jan. 1, 2022.

Campbell’s FOIA requests were mentioned several times during hearings about the FOIA bill, with ASP Director Mike Hagar referring to him as an “activist blogger.”

However, numerous groups from across the political spectrum gathered at the Capitol to push back against the proposed FOIA changes. The original bill was revised late Monday with minor changes, but that bill also failed to gain enough legislative support. Late Tuesday, and after a more than five-hour hearing, the Senate leadership filed the much narrower FOIA bill that eventually found support in the full Senate and House. The House voted 82-15 for the bill, with 3 voting not present. The Senate voted 29-2 for the bill, with 1 voting present and 3 excused. (Link here for a record of the House vote, and link here for a record of the Senate vote.)

Campbell told Talk Business & Politics that the FOIA bill finally approved is unnecessary.

“It’s an overly broad ‘solution’ to a problem that doesn’t exist. No one presented any evidence that documents currently available under the FOIA have presented any security concern beyond the baseless speculation of people who were carrying water for the Governor. It’s a sad day when we limit transparency to protect one thin-skinned politician’s ego,” Campbell said.

While Gov. Sanders said she is “very happy” with the FOIA bill approved, she noted during a Thursday morning (Sept. 14) press conference that the effort is not over to make FOIA changes.

“We’ve made it very clear that our number one priority was the safety component within the FOIA legislation. That’s part of government. You come in, we got exactly what we really needed that is critical. … We’re not going to stop continuing to fight for more government efficiency and effectiveness, and I think that is just the beginning of this process,” she said.

Talk Business & Politics has asked the Arkansas Press Association about Gov. Sander’s comment that she may not be finished seeking FOIA changes. This story will be updated if a response is received.