Over the last several years the North Dakota University System been plagued with scandal and controversy, a lot of it owing to things revealed by way of records requests with some of those requests originating with lawmakers. In response to that problem the university system – through their employee, bill sponsor Senator Tim Flakoll of Fargo – sought a way to shut down the requests.
In its original form SB2222 would have made lawmaker requests for records public (currently their requests made through Legislative Council are not a public record), and it would have put a monetary cap on the requests.
The monetary cap was amended out of the bill in the Senate – some state agencies have a bad habit of trying to avoid open records requests by exaggerating their costs – so that by the time the bill reached the House there was only the requirement that lawmaker requests for records be public.
But the House killed even that change, and rightfully so.
“It puts attorneys in Legislative Council in a perilous position,” bill carrier Rep. Mary Johnson (R-Fargo) told the floor. She noted that lawyers who work for Legislative Council are representing their “clients” in the Legislature. A law requiring that these requests be public would probably violate attorney-client privilege.
Johnson also mentioned that the bill would have a “chilling effect” on lawmaker requests for information, and I think that’s the biggest concern.
The universities, in a political maneuver to support this legislation, were quick to leak to the media evidence of massive requests for documents that would cost (at least in their estimation) hundreds of thousands of dollars to comply with. But here’s the thing: Those costs never really accrued, because when notified of those costs lawmakers either dropped their requests or modified them to narrow the scope of responsive records.
Meaning that lawmakers have been acting prudently.
Besides, the larger issue here isn’t that lawmakers go on fishing trips through public records. It’s that lawmakers feel they have to go on fishing trips through public records because they don’t trust some state agencies (notably the university system) to be honest and forthright with information.
By the way, there is a mantra among leftists in North Dakota that House Majority Leader Al Carlson is some sort of a svengali, pulling the puppet strings of his fellow lawmakers and forcing them to do his bidding. But it’s worth noting that Carlson lobbied hard for this bill. He was a co-sponsor and testified for it before committee, but ultimately he found himself in the minority along with Democrats and the other two House Republican sponsors of this bad idea (Rep. Tom Beadle of Fargo and Rep. Mike Nathe of Bismarck).