Open records bill shielding lawmakers wins final passage

March 13, 2021 GMT

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky lawmakers finished work Friday on a bill seen by critics as weakening open records protections by taking steps aimed at removing the right to pursue a court appeal when denied access to legislative records.

Soon after the bill won 70-26 final passage in the Republican-dominated House, an open records advocacy group said it would urge Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear to veto the legislation.

When asked to comment on the bill after the House vote, Beshear spokeswoman Crystal Staley said the governor wants to see “more transparency in government, not less.”

When the bill surfaced, it was criticized by many media outlets as an attempt to weaken the state’s open records law in part by restricting access to public records to Kentucky residents.

Lawmakers responded by loosening the residency requirements in order to make records requests. The restriction was lifted on people who work or own property in Kentucky and news-gathering organizations were exempted from the residency requirement.

But other sections of the bill remained unchanged in the face of criticism.

The measure would give Kentucky lawmakers the ability to deny requests for legislative records without risk of a court appeal — a move intended to give the legislature the last word.

The bill is aimed at removing the opportunity to appeal a denial of legislative records to Franklin County Circuit Court. Instead, the intent is for appeals to be heard by a panel of legislative leadership from both parties.

The bill also would increase the time for agencies to turn over public records, from three to five days.

Open records advocate Amye Bensenhaver said earlier this week that the changes improved the bill but predicted that remaining problems would lead to confusion and a legal challenge.

Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general who helped start the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, referred to the bill’s final passage Friday as “deeply troubling.”

“This bill’s passage was inevitable from the moment it was surreptitiously introduced as a committee sub to ‘an act relating to financial institutions,’” she said in a statement Friday. “It’s all about evasion and avoidance.”

The bill, which sparked a heated debate when it first came up in the House, drew little discussion before winning final approval Friday. Supporters say the measure is meant to keep public agencies from being overburdened by open records requests from out-of-state sources. Responding to those requests saps staff time and costs money, they say.

After the initial House approval, a number of groups and individuals, including The Associated Press, co-signed a letter from the Open Government Coalition warning the bill would “create unneeded and unwanted impediments to public access” and would not ease the burden on public agencies.


The legislation is House Bill 312.