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Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called for a special session with the State legislature that may take the sunshine out of Arkansas’s sunshine law.
During a 10 a.m. press conference in Little Rock, Sanders stated changes to the state’s FOIA law were needed to protect her family and bring the state in line with federal FOIA laws. Sanders claimed the reforms would do nothing to lessen Arkansas’s Freedom of Information Act.
Yet, a look at the draft of the proposed bill to reform portions of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act shows that the reforms would effectively put an end to the public being able to obtain documents surrounding the deliberative processes of state agencies, boards or commissions, including the offices of the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor of the State, Treasurer of the State, Commissioner of State Lands, members of the General Assembly, Justices of the Supreme Court, and Justices of the Court of Appeals.
The reforms would also apply to the entirety of the state’s executive branch, barring the public from obtaining inter-agency and intra-agency memoranda and letters, including communications and documents reflecting advisory opinions and recommendations and deliberations that “comprise part of the process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated.”
The reforms would also prevent the public from obtaining records prepared by state attorneys representing an elected or appointed state officer, a state employee, a state agency, board or commission.
The draft bill lists District 23 Senator Scott Flippo of Mountain Home as a sponsor. House Rep. David Ray, another sponsor of the bill, said the bill would be filed later today when speaking to the press following Sanders’s call for a special session.
“Arkansas has some of the most transparent FOIA laws in the country,” Sanders said. “And these reforms will do nothing to change that. But some are weaponizing FOIA and taking advantage to our laws to hamper state governments and enrich themselves. They don’t care about transparency. They want to waste our tax dollars, slow down our bold, conservative agenda and frankly put my family’s lives at stake.”
Republican officials, including Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, have been making attempts to change FOIA laws over the past year. Griffin recently created a FOIA task force in June to consider ways to better “balance” the law with modern technology.
Griffin’s group is largely composed of government officials, with both State Rep. David Ray and State Sen. Breanne Davis having attempted to change Arkansas’s transparency laws for the worse through House Bill 1762.
That bill, which was lobbied for by the Arkansas School Board Association, would have shielded documents including law enforcement records relating to ongoing investigations from being obtained by the public. It also would have triggered a requirement to pay for an employee or a contractor to fulfill the request at the rate of pay of the lowest-paid employee or contractor with the necessary skill needed to process FOIA requests.
Griffin’s FOIA group is expected to meet for the first time today. The meeting will not be open to the public.
“The last time FOIA was modernized, the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet,” Griffin said in a press release about the working group. “Since then, the use of digital records and new communications technology has increased exponentially, making it possible for public entities to create and retain more records than ever before, making responding to FOIA requests more complex and increasing the amount of FOIA requests being lodged with public entities.”
Sanders’s call for a special session to tackle tax reductions and FOIA reforms appears to have sprung out of a lawsuit that was filed this week by Little Rock attorney and Blue Hog blogger Matt Campbell, who sued the Arkansas State Police over attempts to keep Sanders’s travel records from the public.
Since June, Campbell has submitted a plethora of FOIA requests to ASP in an attempt to discover who has been riding with Sanders on ASP’s airplane as a part of the entourage, which is used by the Governor’s Office for travel.
Campbell also requested documents detailing the cost of the ASP’s security detail to the Sanders family, including costs to cover the Governor’s overseas trip to Europe to attend the Paris Air Show.
Some of those documents were turned over to Campbell, but they were heavily redacted.
The proposed 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 draft bill contains a “retroactivity clause” that would qualify new exemptions to FOIA requests dating back to Jan. 1, 2022.