By the BGA

Several groups, including the Better Government Association, led a charge this week during the Illinois legislature’s fall veto session to defeat legislation that would have significantly weakened the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, the state’s public records law.

SB 2799—legislation that would have narrowed access to public information and limited the public’s ability to file legal challenges when government bodies don’t follow the FOIA—was stopped dead in its tracks following feverish push back from the BGA and other groups who lobbied members of the Illinois General Assembly, mobilized widespread public opposition and sparked several newspaper editorials decrying the bill as an assault on the FOIA.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie introduced the bill’s FOIA-related language last week, just two days before Thanksgiving when the legislature was not in session. The bill was slated among a number of items to be heard by the Illinois House Executive Committee on Monday.

But notice of the legislation sparked furious action by the BGA, other good government groups, the media and the public immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday. They issued action alerts, published editorials and flooded the offices of lawmakers with phone calls and emails voicing outrage to the proposed legislation.

Calling the public outcry a “firestorm,” Currie decided not to call the bill for a vote during Monday’s house executive committee meeting, and the bill never resurfaced before the veto session concluded. Currie said that the bill was not her idea but a plan backed by Senate President John Cullerton, which could resurface when lawmakers return in January.

BGA Policy Coordinator Judy Stevens applauded the public for its swift and dramatic response.

“In a matter of days the public was heard and turned it around,” Stevens said. “FOIA protects the public’s right to know, but it takes the public to protect FOIA. Thanks to everyone who contacted their legislators—you are guardians of good government.”

In addition to the BGA, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, the Illinois Press Association, the Illinois Broadcasters Association, the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, the Citizen Advocacy Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Chicago Teachers Union all opposed the measure.

However, in another FOIA battle during the veto session, state lawmakers voted to override Gov. Pat Quinn’s veto of HB 3796, a bill that grants government bodies more time to respond to so-called “voluminous” FOIA requests from everyday citizens and allows them to charge fees when such requests seek electronic records.

The FOIA-related language of HB 3796 was introduced in late May and sped through both legislative chambers by wide margins during the final week of the legislature’s spring session. But Gov. Quinn vetoed the measure in June after the BGA, the Attorney General’s office and other reform groups denounced the legislation for its confusing language, arbitrary fees for electronic records and other flaws.

During veto session, lawmakers can override a governor’s veto with a vote from at least 60 percent of its members—that’s 71 votes in the Illinois House and 36 votes in the Illinois Senate. The Illinois House voted to override Quinn’s veto last month, during the first week of veto session, by a 76-36 count, nearly an identical tally to that chamber’s vote in late May.

But the public uproar in response to SB 2799 may have had an impact on the Senate’s Wednesday vote to override HB 3796. On the Senate floor, Sen. Michael Hastings, a sponsor of HB 3796, asked senators not to confuse his legislation with SB 2799. The Senate voted to override the veto by a 39-13 count, a much closer vote than the Senate’s original vote when the bill received just one lone “no” vote.

Despite the override, the BGA thanks the lawmakers who opposed it. We’ll need them and other reform-minded legislators to protect FOIA in the future and provide citizens with the open and transparent government they deserve.