Narrow FOIA bill approved in Senate and House committees

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,019 views 

A significantly pared-back revision to proposed changes with Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sailed Wednesday (Sept. 13) through Arkansas Senate and House committees.

Gov. Sarah Sanders initially wanted 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. 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. The plane is used by Arkansas governors to travel in the state.

It became clear early Monday the original bill did not have enough votes – even with Republicans having a supermajority in both chambers – and a revised bill was filed late Monday that retained the security provisions language of the original bill. The broad federal exemption was removed and replaced with language that would exempt communications between the governor’s office and cabinet secretaries and certain documents under a “plausible threat of litigation …”

But the second revision also failed to appease FOIA advocates who gathered at the Capitol on Monday and Tuesday to testify against the legislation. Several groups, including the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Democratic Party of Arkansas, Libertarian Party of Arkansas, Conduit for Action, Americans for Prosperity, Arkansas Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and even the Republican Party of Benton County and the Republican Party of Saline County, were active in opposing the proposed FOIA changes.

After a more than five-hour meeting Tuesday by the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, in which a clear majority of the testimony was against the second revised bill, Senate leaders late Tuesday filed Senate Bill 10, which removed all previous proposed provisions except for language related to the security of the governor and First Family.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, and the lone Democrat present at Wednesday morning’s State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting, has been active in pushing back against two previous versions but supported SB 10. He said the bill is still “too broad,” but in “deference to our governor” and in deference to security guidance from the Arkansas State Police, he would support it. He also praised the individuals and groups from a wide political spectrum who pushed back against the two previous versions.

“Everyone came together to stand for transparency in Arkansas,” Tucker said.

While several groups opposed to the previous bills, including the Arkansas Press Association and the Saline County Republican Party, supported SB 10, it was not diluted enough for everyone. During a late morning House committee meeting, Bill Kopsky, head of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said state officials should be able to find a way to provide a list of non-family and non-security personnel who use the state plane.

Mike Hagar, Secretary of Public Safety and ASP director, said information about who is on a flight can help create patterns that can be used by those seeking to harm a governor and the First Family.

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said a list of non-security and non-family people who fly on the plane should be public info and could be released “in the aggregate” to avoid the security concerns outlined by Hagar. She said the way SB 10 is written means a “vast array” of information not related to security will be blocked from public info.

As it did in the Senate committee, the bill also received broad approval in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. Senate Bill 10 is set for Thursday floor votes in the House and Senate.