When the House State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee voted 9-4 against a bill that would have gutted the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, I cheered the way my husband does when one of his favorite teams gets an unlikely win.
I started watching the livestream of the March 29 committee meeting reluctantly. I fully expected a majority of committee members and then a majority of both the House and Senate to go along with Maumelle Rep. David A. Ray’s hurry-up bill. After all, it had the support of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who gets pretty much whatever she wants from her party’s supermajority.
This is an Opinion
My husband, Rob Moritz, a journalist and journalism instructor, was appointed by the Senate president pro tempore to the Arkansas FOIA Task Force shortly after it was created by the Legislature in 2017, and he is currently its chairman. The task force’s job is to make recommendations on any bills that amend the FOIA.
Rep. Ray said he was too busy with other legislative duties to meet with the task force on the one and only day between filing his bill and asking the House committee to approve wholesale changes in the public’s right to get information from state and local government agencies. The task force did its job anyway. The members opposed Ray’s bill, and they further took the unprecedented step of declaring that the bill was not in the best interest of the state.
Rob was so discouraged that he couldn’t make himself watch the hearing. As a result, he missed the thrill of watching a few journalists and a parade of “normal” Arkansans plead with the representatives not to make it more difficult, more time-consuming and potentially more expensive to get less information.
The only supporters who testified were people whose jobs would be made easier by not having to be as responsive to the public. When Ray acknowledged that many of the bill’s opponents were his friends, I started to think maybe Team FOIA had a chance. When the roll-call vote was taken and Chairman Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said, “Rep. Ray, your bill has failed,” I felt a rush of elation and relief.
It was especially gratifying that Arkansans didn’t fall for an exceptionally cynical sales pitch — that our FOIA needed to be more like those of other states.
This approach by Rep. Ray and Gov. Sanders played on a phenomenon that has fascinated me for decades. Accustomed to our state being a low achiever in so many categories, Arkansans often assume that residents of other states have anything we have and probably better. And that absolutely is true in a lot of important categories — education, health, income, etc.
But it isn’t true in everything. Not even close. And this is obvious to those of us who are lucky enough to travel. If you travel to other states for business or pleasure, you know that we have great restaurants and terrific barbecue. You know our statewide newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is noticeably better than most newspapers in other markets. You might have noticed the same about a certain locally owned business publication.
But unless you have tried to access public information in other states, you might not realize that the Arkansas FOIA is — for now — demonstrably better than corresponding “sunshine laws” in most other states. Rob and I started our journalism careers in Arkansas and then spent a decade in Tennessee before returning home. During our exile, it took a while to accept that, when it came to the public’s right to know, we weren’t in Arkansas anymore.
Many things need to change in our state, but downgrading our superior FOIA should not be high on anyone’s to-do list. Any changes in the law need to be made carefully and deliberately, not rushed through in hopes that the public won’t figure out that they are being deprived of one of the great benefits of being Arkansans.