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Duncan Seeks Transparency in Presidential Library Fundraising

Press release from U.S. Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn. 02; February 25, 2015:

WASHINGTON – Congressman John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-TN) introduced bipartisan legislation Wednesday to shine light on the closed and secretive process of presidential library fundraising.

The Presidential Library Donation Reform Act of 2015 would require presidential library fundraisers to disclose any donation of more than $200.  Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, joined as the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the bill.

“Presidential library fundraising organizations are formed while a president is in office and collect donations from individuals, corporations and foreign governments with no limit on the contribution amount.  When there is no requirement for disclosing the donor or the amounts being donated, there is great potential for abuse,” Duncan said.

“I first introduced this bill in 1999 after learning that foreign governments from the Middle East were making very large donations to the proposed library for President Clinton. However, this is not a partisan issue. I introduced and have supported this legislation under both Democratic and Republican presidents,” Duncan continued.

“The Presidential Library Donation Act is a bipartisan, good government bill that would bring transparency to the process under which presidential libraries are built,” said Ranking Member Cummings. “The bill would require that the identities of those who donate to help construct a president’s library be disclosed.”

In 2013, Sunlight Foundation Policy Director Daniel Schuman endorsed this bill during a hearing on federal government transparency in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, saying it “would provide valuable information on special interests whose donations put them in close proximity with presidents.”

Swift action on the measure is expected in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Rep. Duncan’s presidential library transparency bill passed the U.S. House with large bipartisan majorities in 2002, 2007, and 2009.

Watch Rep. Duncan speak about this bill on the House floor HERE.

Lynn’s Ethics Bill Calls for More Disclosure by Lawmakers

Saying more openness is needed on the part of Tennessee policymakers, Rep. Susan Lynn has introduced legislation that would require the disclosure of all real property they own other than their primary home.

The Mt. Juliet Republican’s HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.

“Back in 2006, when we did the ethics reform, we wanted this to be part of the disclosure and simply couldn’t get it done at that time,” said Lynn, who served in the House for eight years before running for state Sen. Mae Beavers’ seat and losing in 2010.

“Leaving the Legislature for two years, like I did, you start thinking about the things you wish you’d done or could have done, and this was one of those things.”

Before the 108th General Assembly session began, Lynn, who chairs the Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee, said she learned of a bill filed by freshman Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston that called for exempting planning commission members from such disclosure.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is not good,’” Lynn said. “I was getting a lot of Tea Party emails, and they were basically indicting all of us for filing that bill.”

Lynn said she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so she called him and asked why he had filed it.

“He said his county mayor asked him to,” she said, adding that after she explained to Calfee the importance of more disclosure, not less, he withdrew his bill and thanked her for calling him.

Lynn’s bill would require the disclosure of the address of the property and the month and year of its acquisition, but not everyone in the General Assembly is in favor of it.

Many have told her that the information is a matter of public record, and that should be sufficient. Her argument is that since it is public record, “What’s wrong with putting it all in one neat, consolidated place to make that disclosure?”

“I’m not feeling a warm breeze right now from the [Local Government] committee,” said Lynn, who postponed a vote on the bill until March 12. “I really feel like I’m standing out there alone. I know it’s the right thing to do, and I hope they will be amenable.”

She said she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement, if it’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.

“I think it’s very important for local government to make this disclosure, especially the planning commission members,” she said. “I think property holdings that one has, especially holdings that they hold for some future opportunity, should be disclosed, [because] maybe they’re in a position to vote on things that will make the opportunity better.”

She said she hopes that it doesn’t come to that, though.

“I hope my colleagues see the big picture. They won’t be in office together forever.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Kyle Pushes to Apply Open Meetings Act to State Senate

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; January 8, 2012:

Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis) is challenging the growing culture of corruption in the state legislature by pressuring the Republicans who control Nashville to adopt greater transparency rules for the state Senate.

If Republican politicians are going to waste our time on extreme legislation that doesn’t create jobs or draft new handouts for wealthy special interests, it should be done in public.

The full release from SenatorJimKyle.com:

NASHVILLE – State Sen. Jim Kyle pushed for greater transparency in the 108th General Assembly during the first day of session, by moving to apply the Open Meetings Act to the state Senate.

Sen. Kyle’s motion would have amended preliminary Senate rules to apply the act, applying the same standard to Senate caucuses that’s followed by local governments, Senate committees and the Senate itself. Sen. Kyle withdrew his motion when Rules Committee Chairman Mark Norris agreed to take up the issue.

“If Republicans want open government, they can join with us and support this proposal,” Sen. Kyle said. “By amending the rules, their deliberations will be subject to public scrutiny, as should be the standard in state government.”

Under former Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the majority caucus meetings were open to the public, but that has not been the case under Republican control.

“We seven Democratic Senators represent not only our constituents, but the 2.5 million Democrats in Tennessee,” Sen. Kyle said. “Fighting for their values means fighting for open government. It levels the playing field for ideas, so that they are judged on merit, not politics.”

Senator Jim Kyle represents Memphis. Contact him at sen.jim.kyle@capitol.tn.gov or (615) 741-4167 or 309 War Memorial Building, Nashville, TN 37243-0028. Visit his website at http://senatorjimkyle.com.

Haslam Administration Keeps Schedule-Planner Under Wraps

Gov. Bill Haslam isn’t too keen on letting Tennesseans in on who he’s meeting behind closed doors.

“There’s just a lot of discussions that we have, that any governor needs to have, as part of the decision-making process that we go through on so many different issues,” the governor said recently.

The administration rejected a request from TNReport in July to review or obtain copies of the governor’s calendar-scheduling planner dating back to his Jan. 15, 2010, inauguration through June 30, 2012.

Haslam’s office said his schedule falls under the protection of “deliberative process privilege.” The exception under common law allows for government secrecy in instances of communications, opinions and recommendations on policy issues.

However, the state government’s own open-records advocate, Elisha Hodge, says there’s no precedent under this exception in Tennessee to keep the governor’s calendar hidden from public view.

“In Tennessee, the deliberative process privilege has been discussed in a number of public records cases,” but never in the context of public officials’ calendars, said Hodge.

In the cases the judiciary did review, “the courts have never found the privilege to be applicable, based upon specific records that were at issue in the cases.”

Information like what’s on the governor’s schedule should be public, said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

“I don’t want to know when he brushes his teeth, and I don’t want to know when he goes to bed,” Flanagan said. “But when he’s acting in the official capacity for the state of Tennessee, the people of Tennessee need to see how he’s performing his duties.”

The only way to challenge the administration’s stance would be to sue the administration and take the governor to court, which is a costly option.

Haslam has something of a mixed history with government transparency since assuming the state’s highest office.

In his second executive order, which set ethics training requirements for his cabinet members, the governor said that “this Administration intends to set a high standard for openness, transparency and accountability.”

“It is the unwavering policy of the Executive Branch to facilitate the right of Tennesseans to know and have access to information with which they may hold state government accountable,” his executive order declared.

But his staff is now looking to standardize how agency officials respond to public requests for information, with an eye toward avoiding requests for public documents that amount to “fishing expeditions” that cost time and money to assemble.

His office also moved to let commissioners keep secret how much they earn from their various sources of income, and he advocated in favor of ensuring that companies winning millions of dollars worth of state economic development awards can keep their lists of business owners out of the public eye.

Past governors assented to varying levels of letting the public review their calendars, said Larry Daughtrey, a retired Capitol Hill reporter for the Tennessean. Daughtrey contrasted the general practice with the relative openness of Gov. Ned McWherter, who led the state from 1987 to 1995.

“With McWherter, you could get his meeting schedule, but you had to go to the press office and ask to see it. You could also walk into any meeting you wanted in the governor’s office,” he said. “I don’t remember any other governor who would let you see the meeting schedule, at least with any regularity.”

Haslam’s administration puts out a weekly public schedule, which includes certain public events reporters are invited to. Gov. Don Sundquist did much the same, said Beth Fortune, who was Sundquist’s press secretary. Sundquist served from 1995 to 2003.

“We issued a weekly calendar of Gov. Sundquist’s public events, not private meetings. Sometimes, we would open private meetings to the press, if requested, and depending upon the topic of the meeting and its participants,” she said via email.

Once their terms are over, governors hand over to the public hundreds of boxes worth of correspondence, records and scheduling information. The latest records in state archives are from the Sundquist administration and reveal flight schedules and appointments with various lawmakers and interest groups.

Records for Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was termed out of office in 2011, are still being processed into microfilm.

Governors in some other states, including the notoriously corrupt Illinois, allow their meeting schedules to be made public, including facts like who they met with, where and when. But officials there redact information on certain meetings.

Gov. Haslam offered that his administration may “re-evaluate” opening up his meeting schedule, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I can’t say it’s not a decision we won’t revisit as we’re here a little longer and get used to the different decisions and impacts that that might make. I think we just felt like coming out of the box, that there was a need just to protect that deliberative process for now,” Haslam told TNReport in an interview last month.

He said closing off his calendar now doesn’t mean the public is getting locked out of answers as to why certain decisions are made.

“(Citizens) really want to know where are you, what did you decide and tell me why you decided that,” said the governor. “And I think we do owe answers like that — whether it be issues we’re facing on health care issues, or whatever it is — to say here’s where we are, and here’s why we think what we do.”

ECD Drafting ‘Clawback’ Clauses for Subsidy Agreements

A state agency that doles out millions in taxpayer dollars to businesses promising to make work for struggling Tennesseans is formulating procedures to take money back from companies that don’t deliver the good jobs.

The Department of Economic and Community Development is working out details of a “clawback” provision it plans to insert into FastTrack grant agreements, according to the agency’s communications director, Clint Brewer.

“It’s not the issue that businesses haven’t done what they said they’re going to do. The issue is we want to be following the best practices we can,” said Brewer, assistant ECD commissioner. “To do that, we have to be the best stewards of public money we can be.”

Most ECD contracts currently don’t include a clawback provision, said Brewer. The lack of such recourse was at one time a particularly frustrating state of affairs to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican. Ramsey criticized the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen for making deals like $101 million in handouts to Electrolux for hinting at the creation of 1,250 jobs, even though the formal arrangement explicitly disallowed state officials from trying to recoup taxpayer resources if the company failed to produce.

Brewer said the department is now “on the brink of beginning to use that language in a new standard FastTrack contract,” but wouldn’t say specifically when the agency would start.

“It has taken us the better part of the last 18 months – obviously with a lot of other things going on – to work through the process of determining what legal precedent and black letter law would allow,” he said.

Making businesses promise to give taxpayers back some of their money should not only be required, but be publicly disclosed, said Dick Williams, with Tennesseans for Fair Taxation, a pro-income tax coalition of progressive activists and public-sector union groups.

“If something doesn’t work out, then the taxpayers ought to get back some, if not all, of the money they gave them,” Williams said. “Certainly, we shouldn’t assume they’ll all be successful.”

This year, lawmakers agreed to more than double the FastTrack program to $80 million. Since 2006, the state has allotted an average of $38.5 million in tax dollars annually to the FastTrack program.

The program offers businesses grants or loans for expenses like job training, infrastructure improvement, equipment, and temporary office space related to relocation or expansion. The taxpayer money is funneled through local governments or their economic development branches to issue to companies.

Changing how grant contracts are written is one of a handful of changes economic development officials are talking about making this year.

Last week, the department loaded agency statistics and records online in an attempt to increase accessibility to government documents, with plans to add a searchable database and other features by the time legislators are back on Capitol Hill next year.

The new “Open ECD” website lists business and incentives information for state-issued FastTrack grants, tax incentives, TNInvestco projects and community block grants — and how many jobs the money has reportedly created.

None of the information is new, says Brewer, but it’s now accessible without having to file open records requests to look at them, “so you can see on the back end how those jobs have stood up.”

Open government advocates generally applaud the effort to make information easier for the public to get to, but warn that the website shouldn’t be a substitute for agencies filling specific open records requests.

“That’s commendable as long as that does not become a substitute for normal, routine public records requests,” said Frank Gibson, director of public policy for the Tennessee Press Association.

“My big concern about them is at some point (when) you make a public records request, they’ll say it’s on their website. But is all the information you’re asking about on their website?” he said.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Kent Flanagan calls the site “a great starting point,” but says he’s waiting to see how good the department is at updating people who sign up for alerts when ECD documents are posted.

“It’s not about what happened three months ago. It’s about what happened this morning,” he said.

Online Transparency Not Advanced Enough, Say TN Open Gov’t Advocates

The State of Tennessee is lately booting up new technologies designed in theory to ease the public’s often wearisome interactions with government bureaucracies.

But genuine progress toward making government more transparent to taxpayers is actually pretty slow going, according to groups that promote easy access to public information.

The governor announced moves to give taxpayers access to state construction and traffic tie-up data on their smartphones this fall and just finished a massive overhaul of the state’s website. But various open government groups give Tennessee’s website grades ranging from a “B” overall, to a “C+” for transparency of the state budget process to a “D-” for online access to government spending data.

“The searchability still leaves a lot to be desired,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a former newsman with The Associated Press. Flanagan said it’s difficult for the average citizen to find what they’re looking for. “Unless they know the quirks for looking up legislation and bills, they can get frustrated very easily.”

At the Tennessee Digital Government Summit in Nashville Tuesday, the governor boasted about having assembled a team of “talented, experienced professionals in the state, looking at ways to increase effectiveness in the IT process.”

Meanwhile, the state is evaluating changes to the way driver service centers manage information, creating a portal to better direct people seeking occupational licenses and improving the state website’s search engine, the governor said.

“If you’re providing a product, whether you’re a dry cleaner, a restaurant, a government, a hospital, whatever, it’s all about making it simpler for the customer. And that’s what we’re trying to do in so many of our processes,” said Haslam.

Earlier this year, the governor’s office said it was working on updating the content and functionality of the state’s Open Government website. But so far, the administration hasn’t set a timeline for its rollout, said spokesman Dave Smith.

He says the governor’s office is also working on standardizing how the state responds to requests for open records, an issue Haslam has said can be abused by reporters or political operatives going on “fishing expeditions” for stacks of public records. Those new rules are due out this summer, Smith said.

Open government advocates say they’d like the state to ensure government makes it easy for citizens to review government records and determine how decisions are made.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Justin Owen, executive director of the Beacon Center, a free-market think tank. Owen said the Center was charged over $1,000 by the state to fill an open records request. “If it’s a challenge for us, you can forget about average citizens being able to obtain public records. That really needs to change.”

These are documents the public needs to be able to see to examine how the proverbial sausage is being made, said Flanagan, adding that “most people don’t want to get that close. Most people just want to sit down and eat the sausage.”

“That’s all part of what those of us who have a keen interest in open government are looking for. How much can you as a citizen, a taxpayer, a voter, see?” he said.

Transparency in Tennessee: Assessing the 107th General Assembly

Commentary by Kent Flanagan, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, May 3, 2012:

Secrecy seemed to be a common thread running through the session of the Tennessee Legislature that ended May 1. The latest “secret” revealed is that key members of the Legislature met on April 23 at a Nashville restaurant of the session to work out deals on amendments to the governor’s $34.1 billion state budget proposal.

The secret session was revealed in an Associated Press story filed the following day. No one in the Legislature or the governor’s office seemed upset that the meeting was held or revealed in news stories. But a representative of Gov. Bill Haslam did take care to note that no one from the governor’s office participated in the weekend meeting.

Tennessee political reporters and observer s know that this happens near the end of every legislative session in Tennessee. And it’s the reason the State Integrity Investigation, a national project to determine the potential for corruption in all 50 states, gave Tennessee a score of 0 out of a possible 100 on whether the “state budgetary process is conducted in a transparent manner.”

“There have been secret meetings, I’m not going to deny,” House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick told the AP. “There’s been a lot of secrecy for 200 years. I don’t think it’s any worse than it’s always been.”

Despite a flare-up between Senate and House members over so-called pork barrel projects and efforts by the minority Democrats, the budget passed largely as hammered out during that weekend meeting.

Over all, State Integrity gave Tennessee a C+ for receiving 79 points out of 100 for the transparency of its budgeting process even with that big fat 0.

Secrecy was the major sticking point in another bill presented by Gov. Haslam’s Department of Economic and Community Development, which wants to give incentive grants to private companies to bring jobs to the state. In order to perform the department’s due diligence in checking out privately held companies, the state wanted to keep confidential the companies’ identity and all proprietary information. The administration and legislators were unable to reach agreement on confidentiality and the measure did not pass.

On the other hand, public teacher evaluation scores, under a new system developed last year, will remain confidential under legislation negotiated between the governor and Legislature with the Tennessee Education Association.

The bill to amend the public records act was passed quickly and with little fanfare through the use of a “caption” bill, which was passed largely unnoticed in a Senate committee before open government activists had a chance to oppose it. The only relevant element on the caption bill was the reference to “public records” before the rest of the caption was rewritten to keep teacher evaluation scores secret.

Still another bill brought by the administration would keep secret the names of all applicants for the top job at Tennessee’s universities and colleges except for the finalists. The amended bill called for finalists’ names to be announced at least 15 days before the appointment is made and required that officials publicly name at least three finalists for each post.

To find out more about issues of transparency in Tennessee, visit the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Senate Shelves ECD Transparency Bill for Year

Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is giving up on a plan to solicit more detailed information from companies receiving taxpayer-funded grants after hitting a snag in the Senate over which details should be made public.

Sen. Bo Watson, a high-ranking Republican who is carrying the measure, opted to shove the bill in a defunct subcommittee that is not expected to meet again this year. The move essentially kills the bill.

“The administration made the decision not to move forward,” said Watson of Hixson. “I don’t anticipate anything happening.”

The administration originally set out to collect and keep confidential information like budgets, financial plans and a list of owners from companies wanting FastTrack grants in exchange for building or expanding their businesses in Tennessee.

The move, SB2207, was intended to give the Department of Economic and Community Development more information to use when deciding whether to hand over taxpayer dollars to those companies.

But the measure was trip upped when lawmakers, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, said information about who owns companies actually winning the grants should be made public. ECD has been working since February on some sort of compromise with no success, saying the department “felt there were concerns and questions about this bill that merited further discussion.”

“ECD will spend time over the next year working with stakeholders on the best approach to conducting due diligence of prospective projects in the most transparent way possible while maintaining Tennessee’s competitive advantage,” said Clint Brewer, the agency’s assistant commissioner of communications said in an email.

Sunshine Bills Slow Going in General Assembly

While lawmakers juggle issues like gun rights, the state budget and teaching about homosexuality in Tennessee schools, they’re also talking about whether and how to shine more light on the inner workings of state government.

“The idea of transparency is sometimes less transparency than opaque. If you can’t see through it, it’s not transparent,” said Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Here’s the status update on some prominent open government bills:

ECD Secrecy, SB2207/HB2345: The sexiest transparency issue this year is a move allowing the Department of Economic Development to ask for, then make secret, insider details about businesses seeking government handouts. The administration says the extra info will help them make better decisions, but the bill’s hit a major snag. Lawmakers are now behind the scenes working out the sticking point: whether businesses should have to publicly reveal the owners of the company getting thousands to millions of taxpayers dollars. There’s been no movement on that issue for weeks, and so far, officials say there’s nothing new to report.

Phoning It In, SB2723/HB2883: This measure would allow local school board members to phone in their attendance by “attending” and voting at meetings electronically if they’re out of town for work, a family emergency or military service. The board still needs a quorum physically present to conduct business. This passed the Senate 26-6, but the issue got caught up in the House after lawmakers argued other boards will want to do the same. Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, says he’s OK with this bill. “Anything they do in the open, we’re for. The alternative is a lot worse,” he said. The House will pick it up again March 22.

Bill Authors Anonymous, SB3667/HB2301: The minority party wants lawmakers to point out bills handed to them from outside interest groups. While the proposed “Influence Disclosure Act” would apply to both parties, the Republicans quickly killed the bill in a House subcommittee earlier this month. “This is a bad bill … horrible bill, really,” said Rep. Curry Todd, R-Memphis, who sits on the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council’s board of directors, which has handed Tennessee lawmakers a handful of controversial bills in the last few years. “I know what it’s getting back at. It’s getting back at ALEC, that’s what it’s designed to do,” he said before voting against it.

Governments on the Interwebs, SB2832/HB3328: This one would require county, city and school districts to post loads of public documents and information on their websites. The move also would pave the way to publishing public notices on websites rather than in local newspapers. While the measure would increase government transparency, it has a $10 million price tag to those local governments. That includes the cost to develop websites for 167 government bodies that have yet to build a website of their own. “This is the first year that we’ve had bills to open things up. It’s sort of a new experience for us,” Gibson said. Lawmakers have pushed this bill until the last meeting of State and Local Government committee in both houses.

Virtual Pinboard, SB3430/HB3797: There’s a slow push to move a variety of public notices off newspaper pages and onto government websites. Lawmakers studied the issue last year, but it hasn’t moved much this spring. Instead, lawmakers thought about easing into posting notices online by starting simply with announcements about sunset hearings on professional oversight boards. If passed, those notices would be posted to the state Comptroller’s and the General Assembly’s website, but the sponsors to that bill have taken it off notice.

Dose of Sunshine, Day 5

In an effort to help promote Sunshine Week, TNReport is republishing editorial cartoons kindly made available by Sunshineweek.org to raise awareness about the fundamental importance of open government in a free society.

“Though created by journalists, Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why,” say organizers of the campaign. “Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.”