Legislature '08: partly cloudy with rays of sunshine

(though it says above that this was written by Megan Rhyne, it wasn't. It was written by VCOG Executive Director Jennifer Perkins, but thanks to a Web-updating quirk, Megan's name was inadvertently added.)

The 2008 Virginia General Assembly session has started out with a bang. By my count, there are at least 60 bills to fight, amend and track for changes. It's going to be a busy season for access advocates. See our list of bills we are tracking this year.

So far we have fared well in that no bills on the list of most FOIA watchers has yet passed into law, but it’s still early and the opportunities still numerous for the General Assembly to create hardship for citizens of Virginia who want to know what their government is doing for and to them.

Some of the most egregious anti-access offenders that bear mentioning are:
  • the well-publicized University of Virginia secret-donor legislation (HB407/SB130);
  • a similar bill that would allow for secret donations to public museums (HB858/SB647) (see any pattern here);
  • HB1020 which allows for study committees of the General Assembly to conduct meetings without a physical quorum present; and
  • HB 1007 the aptly named bill that tells you Big Brother is watching you. The bill would, no kidding, make confidential and exempt from a FOIA information gathered in a basement room in Richmond that it deems is "criminal intelligence information." In addition the bill allows anyone who makes a charge against you, however unfounded, immune from any lawsuit for defamation or negligence.

On the other hand, those that deserve honorable mention and a gold star include:
  • SB342, which would require the purchaser of a state toll facility to conduct all meetings as open meetings. For those of you in Northern Virginia at the mercy of the Dulles toll operators who claim to not have to abide by Virginia's FOIA, this is a necessary bill;
  • SB8, which would allow voters to vote absentee in person for any reason;
  • HB799, which requires the State Board of Elections to mail a voter guide to all registered voters in advance of the November general election with information on pending constitutional amendments, statewide referenda and candidates for statewide or General Assembly office; and
  • HB 313, which removes the working papers exemption for the CEO or President of any public institution of higher education.

Also worth mentioning  is HB1271, which in its original form, among other things, would have allowed public bodies to exempt information on technology franchisees. In these times of cities, counties and even entire states entering getting into the business of technology its important for taxpayers to know who their local governments are doing business with and entering into big money contracts.

The good news is that Del. Ebbin has agreed to an amendment that would make the exclusion not apply to any bidder, applicant or franchisee that is owned or controlled by a public body.

Another bill giving the Coalition heartburn is HB662, which would extend a prohibition against release currently enjoyed by the Department of Taxation for applications for conservation tax credits to the Department of Conservation & Recreation. The Department wants to "prohibit the dissemination of any document containing information on transactions, property, income or business of any person or corporation that is required to be filed under section 58,1-512" (the conservation tax credits section).

These tax credits represent huge amounts of lost tax- payer revenue in that they are worth 40% of the fair market value of the property. The DHC actually gets involved with properties when the credit is worth over $1 million. While land conservation may be a worthy cause, that doesn't mean it’s above public scrutiny.

The proponents feel that since the Department Of Taxation has the exemption, they should too, and apparently they have had commercial requests for the information and they feel they are not asking for anything new to be exempt. In response it seems that adding one bad law to another bad law is not the answer.  VCOG staff has apprised DHC of its concerns and suggested several amendments, but none have been accepted thus far.

So to sum up, if you'll forgive the sunshine reference, it's partly cloudy in Richmond with a few rays of sunshine peeking through but rain clouds could be coming in at any time.

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