During her 2023 inaugural address, Gov. Kay Ivey pledged to take steps to promote more transparency in Alabama’s government. Shortly thereafter, she issued an executive order intended to make it easier for citizens to access public records.

“Today, I am still every bit as committed to leading a state government that Alabamians can be proud of – one that is open, honest and transparent,” Ivey said when issuing the order. “Access to public records is essential to guaranteeing transparency in government, and I am proud to sign this executive order that improves this process as a whole.”

Alabamians have a right to know the activities that the state government is engaged in and how their tax dollars are being spent. Yet Senate Bill 196 by Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur), which would have further strengthened the governor’s executive order and streamlined the public records process, died on the last day of the 2023 regular session.

Why? Ivey’s office had concerns with the bill. “We have made meaningful progress already through the governor’s executive order on public records, and this bill, on this final day of Session, was not ready for passage,” her spokesperson, Gina Maiola, told reporters.

Under Orr’s bill, a public officer would have been required to acknowledge receipt of public records requests within 10 business days of its receipt, five days sooner than required by Ivey’s executive order. Most requests would need a response within 20 business days, though in some circumstances, Orr’s bill allowed officials to take up to 45 days to respond, with additional time available to determine if any of the requested information was sensitive or nonpublic.

The bottom line is that Orr’s bill set a maximum of 45 days to fulfill most public records requests that had not been otherwise denied.

Ivey’s apparent sticking point was that beyond 45 days there were few opportunities for extensions. “There are all sorts of ways that (agencies) could ask them for more time, but at some point, it had to come to an end,” Felicia Mason, executive director of the Alabama Press Association said. “And that is in direct conflict with her executive order.”

Orr was “baffled” that the issue was not raised prior to the last day of the session and that the governor’s prior executive order was deficient “because it allows for endless 45-day extensions.”

But Orr’s efforts to streamline access to public records and make Alabama’s government more transparent are much needed. A 2020 report from the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC), ranked Alabama near the bottom of the nation in terms of access to public records for at least the past 15 years. A 2007 transparency and accountability study gave Alabama 0 of 100 points, ranking 49th in the nation. Subsequent studies in 2008 and 2013 ranked Alabama 48th and 50th respectively, and a 2019 study found Alabama to be the least compliant of all states, with a 10% ranking.

While the state can pursue criminal penalties for withholding public records, there are no other remedies available. The NFOIC found that the only penalties leading to greater government compliance were mandatory attorney fee-shifting provisions, meaning that if Alabama were ultimately forced to comply with a records request, it would have to cover the requestor’s attorney fees. No such statute exists in Alabama.

Alabama law states that “every citizen has a right to inspect and take a copy of any public writing of this state,” apart from certain records exempt from the disclosure requirement. Yet far too often state agencies deny or delay citizens' access to that information.

Orr has been fighting to give Alabamians easier access to public records since at least 2021. Citizens shouldn’t have to file costly and time-consuming lawsuits to get basic information from our government.

Orr has vowed to continue the fight. It’s time for Ivey and others to join him.

Justin Bogie serves as Fiscal and Budget Reporter for 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to: Commentary@1819News.com.

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