OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt wants state lawmakers to be subject to the public records laws that apply to the executive branch, state agencies, and city and county government entities.
But the GOP-led Oklahoma Legislature appears unlikely to undo an exemption in state law that shields lawmakers’ emails, text messages, calendars and other records from public scrutiny.
In a veto message last week, Stitt said he welcomes reforming the state’s Open Records Act, including “expanding it in a manner that would allow public access to records in other branches of government.”
In 1985, lawmakers who wrote the Open Records Act exempted the Legislature from most aspects of the law.
Asked Thursday whether Stitt was saying the Legislature should have to abide by the public records law, the governor didn’t skip a beat.
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“100%. Everybody should,” Stitt said.
“When you write laws, you shouldn’t pick on just one part of government versus the other,” he said.
The governor offered a similar rationale when last year he vetoed a bill that would require his appointed Cabinet secretaries and state agency directors to file financial disclosure forms. He said legislative appointees, not just executive branch appointees, should also be required to file the forms that detail personal income and investments. Lawmakers successfully overturned Stitt’s veto of that bill.
Stitt said Thursday that public scrutiny is needed for all federal funding flowing into the state and how those dollars are being spent. The Legislature is subject to public records laws when it comes to financial and business records showing the receipt or expenditure of public funds.
Although most court records are available to the public, Oklahoma judges and justices are exempt from public records laws except when it comes to financial transactions related to public funds.
The Oklahoma Legislature is one of four state legislatures that are exempt from public records laws, according to a 2018 review by MuckRock, an investigative journalism group. But that number may be growing. Arizona lawmakers decided this year to exempt themselves from state public records laws.
Although lawmakers have filed a handful of bills in recent years to remove the Oklahoma Legislature’s Open Records Act exemption, none of the measures has made it close to the governor’s desk.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the Legislature already conducts its business openly because the public is welcome at all legislative hearings and those meetings are livestreamed. He also said his chamber has made strides toward posting meeting agendas with significant notice before any votes.
“We are already extremely transparent,” he said.
If the Legislature were subject to the Open Records Act, legislators could “weaponize” the law for political gain, Treat said. He envisioned a scenario where lawmakers in the minority party would send a flood of public records requests to majority leaders “just to keep them tied up.”
In the past, lawmakers have also expressed concerns about correspondence with their constituents and work-product conversations with their colleagues becoming public.
A spokesman for House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, did not respond to a request for comment.
Joey Senat, an open government expert and associate professor at Oklahoma State University, said it’s unlikely that Stitt’s comments will serve as a catalyst for change unless the governor actively pushes the Legislature to update the Open Records Act. Even then, lawmakers are likely to resist.
He said the lack of transparency surrounding how lawmakers craft a state budget is a key reason why the body should be subject to public records laws. Although leading GOP lawmakers have defended the state budget process as open and transparent, the spending plan is largely crafted behind closed doors and without public scrutiny.
Making the Legislature subject to the Open Records Act would allow the public to see who’s influencing state lawmakers on legislation and how they’re making policy decisions, Senat said.
“People in power always like to avoid having the public see what they do,” he said. “It’s certainly much more convenient, but that kind of secrecy also leads to more corruption, more incompetence and more inefficiency.”