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Tennessee gov-elect promises to overhaul public records law

November 16, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s newly elected governor says he wants to do a complete overhaul of the state’s public records and open meeting laws as part of his commitment to making government more transparent.

Republican Bill Lee first revealed the promise on his transition website last week where he outlined his top priorities as governor, which also includes expanding vocational educational training and helping create more jobs for Tennesseans.

However, it also comes after Lee — whose successful bid for the top state seat was the first time he had ever run for political office — declined to disclose details of his federal tax returns after citing concerns it could negatively impact his $225 million HVAC and plumbing company. The move, while voluntary, raised concerns from his Democratic opponent Karl Dean about his commitment to open government effort.

“Tennessee taxpayers deserve a transparent and open government,” Lee’s transition website reads. ”(Lee) will lead a complete overhaul of our open records and open meetings acts to make government more transparent to you.”

While Lee is new to the political arena, his promise to promote open government follows a common history of politicians who often tout transparency. For example, in South Dakota, government integrity and transparency became a top issue in the gubernatorial race with not only Republican Governor-elect Kristi Noem releasing a plan to boost transparency in government early on her campaign but also her primary and general election opponents.

Over in Missouri, Republican Gov. Mike Parson pledged “to bring honor, integrity (and) transparency to the governor’s office” when he was sworn in as former GOP Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned in June after being plagued by scandals.

Yet those promises don’t always come with guarantees they’ll be fulfilled.

When outgoing Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam first took over the office in 2011, the Republican issued an executive order establishing open government principles and training requirements for those in the executive branch. Yet that same day, Haslam signed a separate executive order eliminating requirements for the governor and top aides to disclose how much they earn in outside income.

Nearly a year later, Haslam told The Associated Press that it’s “not easy” to strike a balance between efficiency and transparency in state government.

According to Lee’s transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold, the Republican wants to reduce the number of public records exemptions and address fees and delays in fulfilling public records requests.

“We need to reduce the number of exemptions and simplify and update our Open Meetings and Open Records Acts,” Arnold said in a statement. “For example, Bill supports the establishment of an ongoing Sunset Review for all exemptions.”

Arnold added that Lee also wants to incorporate more technology.

Earlier this year, the Tennessee of Comptroller’s office found that the state currently had 538 open records exemptions — or about six times as many as there were three decades ago. That number has since jumped to more than 560 since lawmakers added more during this year’s legislative session after the report was released.

Just two statutory exceptions existed when the Tennessee Public Records Act was enacted in 1957.

A legislative panel is currently reviewing Tennessee’s public records laws for possible changes, but has not submitted any proposals.

The last time Tennessee made any significant changes to its public records law was in 2008, when the law was amended to require government agencies to cite state law before they denied access to records. There is currently no similar panel studying the state’s Open Meetings Act.

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