Buried in the 1,600-page state budget bill passed last week by the Ohio General Assembly is a measure wholly unrelated to state finances or, for that matter, any legitimate purpose of state government. Rather, it's a provision that seeks to keep the public from finding out what the legislature is up to, and Governor Taft should use his line-item veto power to excise it when the bill gets to his desk.
The provision in question would bar court-ordered subpoenas of legislative staff members and their communications with legislators. This secrecy measure was sneaked into the bill after the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the state to respond to inquiries from members of the coalition suing the state over school funding.
The Coalition for Equity & Adequacy of School Funding is seeking evidence of legislative intent - or, more likely, lack of intent - which went into the funding plan that gets a hearing before the high court on June 20. Legislative leaders, in contrast, are trying to cover their tracks.
Responsibility for this inexcusable betrayal of Ohio's long-standing history of open public records and meetings falls squarely on the shoulders of Senate President Richard Finan and the rest of the majority Republicans in the legislature. It was Senator Finan who ordered the secrecy amendment inserted covertly as the budget bill made its way through the Senate Finance Committee.
Senator Finan evidently likes to legislate in secret. In 1999, he ordered up an even worse amendment, also to a budget bill, which exempted records of the Legislative Service Commission from the open-records law. The effect was to make it virtually impossible for reporters who cover the Statehouse to know when lobbyists are feathering their own nests by writing legislation that is then presented in committee and on the House and Senate floor by compliant lawmakers.
Emboldened by Senator Finan's amendments, legislators routinely scurry behind closed doors to conduct meetings that are supposed to be held in public, drafting legislation in so-called “working groups.”
The result is that the public has no way of knowing whose interests are being served in private. We can only assume the worst. To adapt a famous saying, “Secrecy is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
Ironically, Senator Finan, who first came to the legislature as a member of the House in 1973, was among Republicans who complained bitterly about similar, but less venal, shenanigans when Democrats controlled the agenda in Columbus. With the power shoe on the other foot, though, the current GOP majority is acting with the same studied disregard for legislative ethics.
Their time, and their usefulness, is coming to an end.
Now that the legislature has misused its power, it's time for Governor Taft to step up and set things right. He has the authority to veto the anti-subpoena provision without negating the rest of the bill, and his spokeswoman already is on record as saying he “doesn't like” the measure.
Vetoing this assault on the public's legitimate right to know what goes on in the legislature may be uncomfortable for the governor, because the budget was passed solely with votes from his Republican colleagues in the House and Senate. But that's no excuse for Mr. Taft not to do what's proper for the people of Ohio.