March 22, 2012
Bill Shapard

BA Ledger: No sunshine for state legislature

By William Swaim Executive Editor, BA Ledger

“A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to A Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” — James Madison

We’re faced with many issues these days.

A struggling economy and job market; rising gas prices; the war on terror; or for sports enthusiasts, the fact their March Madness bracket was blown up after two No. 2 seeds fell in the first round (myself included).

Regardless, it can be easy to lose sight on issues not grabbing front page headlines, but that are important nonetheless. One such issue is the need for an open and transparent government.

In this case, it is the Oklahoma State Legislature’s large belief they should not be held to the same standards as our local, elected officials in regard to transparency.

Maybe this issue doesn’t have the same appeal or apparent impact as say those pesky high gas prices, but to ignore it is to leave what should be an informed people in the dark, without sunshine.

Openness allows us to hold our leaders accountable. When there are not tools to allow us to open the blinds, we are left in the dark.

So it was a huge disappointment to read last week about the failure of House Bill 1085. The bill was authored by Rep. Jason Murphey (R-Guthrie), and supported by House Speaker Kris Steele (R-Shawnee). It was aimed to require state legislators to give public notice of their meetings and open most of their records to public inspection — much in the way our local governments are required to.

But the bill was thrown into a tailspin after some 19 amendments were tacked onto it early last week by Reps. Mike Reynolds and Randy Terrill.

The amendments ultimately were meant to do nothing more than crash the bill, and did so successfully as Steele decided not to put it to a full House vote.

The fact the legislature has exempted itself from adhering to rules that ensure transparency, while requiring local governments to, is not only hypocritical, it goes against everything a government for the people and by the people stands for.

How can we truly govern ourselves if we are not allowed the access and full knowledge to understand the policies that affect each and every one of us?

One way to start is to vote people into office who will support openness and transparency in government. It means voting for the Murpheys and the Steeles and ousting the likes of Terrill and Reynolds.

The question we should all be asking our leaders is just why do they believe they should be exempt from the prying eyes of constituents? After all, a knowledgeable body is an informed body.

See the problem is, legislators don’t want you prying to see just how much they are influenced by lobbyists — right or wrong. Because in many cases, we aren’t going to like to hear that our wishes took a second seat to lobbying interests.

Terrill and Reynolds seemingly ignored that 85 percent of Oklahomans supported requiring legislators to comply with open meeting and open records laws, according to a poll conducted by SoonerPoll. Instead, HB1085 faced death by amendment before it had a chance to be voted on in the House.

The good thing about power to the people is that it starts with us and it ends with us.

We empower the people who impact our everyday lives and if we don’t hold them accountable for their actions, they can continue to hide behind the veil of secrecy.

Let’s hope the legislature raises this issue again and actually puts it to vote. Otherwise it just leaves us wondering, just what are they hiding from us?

Bill Shapard
About the Author

Bill Shapard

Bill is the founder of SoonerPoll.com and ShapardResearch, a full service market research firm based in Oklahoma City. Bill began his career in polling after working on a major campaign in Oklahoma from 1996 until founding SoonerPoll in 2004.