Monday, March 16, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial
By Steve Fair

This week is Sunshine Week 2009. Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Newspapers across the country participate by encouraging the public to demand open and transparent government. According to a recent 2009 Sunshine Week survey, seven in ten Americans believe government is too secretive.

Any honest, principled citizen should support transparency in government-no matter their party affiliation or political philosophy. One of the impediments to having transparency in government are professional lobbyists. Lobbying is the practice of influencing decisions made by government, so lobbying in and of itself is not an evil, wicked practice. Elected officials need imput. They need to know what their constitents are thinking and how legislation will impact those constitent’s lives. The problem arises when you consider that most lobbying is not being done on behalf of a legislator’s constitents. It is being done on behalf of special interests who are attempting to gain legislation favorable to their cause.

State Senator Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, has authored a bill entitled the “Taxpayer Transparency Act.” If enacted, the bill would show whose interests are being represented in proposed legislation. “This is an effort to have more transparency for taxpayers,” Sykes says. Senate Bill 455 would require bills requested by constituents, agencies and other entities to be listed on a web site so taypayers could research who was behind legislation. The bill passed the Senate 34-6 with bi-partisian support and now goes to the floor for consideration.

Some members of the State Senate suggested adding what client the lobbyists are requesting bills for and include that on the website. Lobbyists often represent a number of clients, associations, muncipalities, etc., so just listing the lobbyists might not identify the source of the requests. Another legislator has suggested that any state agency requesting the legislation be included on the website. Both of those suggestions are good ones and should be considered. Sykes’ bill would allow citizens to see who is trying to influence legislators and which legislators are most apt to be influenced. It’s a little known fact that we have state agencies in Oklahoma hiring lobbyists with Oklahoma taxpayer money to lobby the legislature on behalf of the state agency. That means taxpayer money is being used to lobby taxpayer funded election officials to give more taxpayer money to state agencies. This practice must stop. If a state agency cannot effectively justify where and how taxpayer monies are being spent, perhaps they shouldn’t be getting the funding in the first place. If we truly want transparency in government, we should ban state agencies from hiring lobbyists.

Senator Sykes has that one covered as well. He authored Senate Bill 454 that would prohibit the use of state funds for lobbying. The bill has cleared the Appropriations Committee and will now moves to the floor. Senator Kenneth Corn, a Democrat, has asked Sykes to consider adding a friendly amendment that would prohibit agencies from hiring and utilizing legislative liaisons. Corn says liaisons are defined differently in statues than lobbyists.

Lobbying is an industry that sells influence. Industries, businesses, and individuals hire lobbyists to “sell” their views to legislators. Often lobbyists use small gifts to establish a relationship with a legislator. It’s legal for lobbyists to do that, but for a legislator to be so na├»ve as to think those gifts have no strings is scary. It would be more honest if a legislator would hold an auction every Friday for their vote instead of selling it for tinker tools or bowl of porridge.

Last year House Bill 2444, authored by State Representative Jason Murphey, R, Guthrie and State Senator Anthony Sykes, R-Moore would have created a “no gifts” list for legislators. HB 2444 passed out of a House subcommittee and a House full committee, however it was not scheduled for a hearing on the House floor. State Senator Sykes won Senate approval for the plan as an amendment to the 2008 Ethics Reform Bill but the reform language was later removed as part of the conference committee process. Passage of that bill would have certainly “shed some light” on government.

If we truly want transparency in government, we must shed light on not only what lawmakers are voting on, but also the origin of the legislation they are considering. If a state agency or a special interest group needs a new law and it’s good legislation, it should be able to pass the “light of day” test. As the Fifth Dimension sang: Let the sunshine in!

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