GOP Budget Cuts Might Shutter State Transparency Board

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The Des Moines Register‘s Jason Clayworth reported yesterday that included in Iowa Republicans’ plan to slash $110 million from the state’s current fiscal year budget is a $75,000 reduction of the Iowa Public Information Board’s $348,000 annual budget. If passed, according to the report, the cut would gut over half of the government transparency board’s remaining fiscal year budget, which mostly goes toward employee wages and benefits.

Margaret Johnson, IPIB’s interim director, told the Register that the cut could force the board to cease operating, at least temporarily, which would leave costly lawsuits as the only remedy for public record seekers against government agencies that deny their requests for documents.

IPIB was founded by the state Legislature in 2012, after the nonprofit investigative news outlet Center for Public Integrity gave Iowa an F grade in the public access to information category on its annual State Integrity Investigation report card. The low rating was owed to the state’s lack of enforcement of violations of its open records law and the roadblocks people faced when appealing denied requests.

When he signed the bill establishing IPIB into law, Gov. Terry Branstad hailed the move as an “important and significant step forward.” But for transparency advocates, who’d spent the past six years pushing for a board with the ability to enforce the state’s open records and meetings laws, IPIB’s creation was a mixed bag from the start because of an amendment that, for the first time in the open records law’s 45-year history, exempted “tentative, preliminary, draft, speculative, or research material” from disclosure. “You can use the drafts to learn things,” Lyle Muller, director of the nonprofit Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, told CPI after the bill’s passage. “I think they are valuable. They give you an idea of what the early ideas were that were rejected.” (In 2015, Iowa State University used the new exemption as part of its rationale for denying a records request I filed with the university’s Reiman Gardens while working as a reporter for the Ames Tribune.)

In the years since it was established, IPIB has been criticized for its tendency to side with the government against complainants despite having the authority to fine transparency law violators up to $2,500. But it’s also one of the few boards of its kind in the country and sometimes mediates disputes between journalists and governmental bodies to help them reach a mutual resolution. On occasion, the board has issued fines, for example when it hit former Washington County Attorney Larry Brock with a $1,000 penalty for his willful failure to turn over government records for three months. Other times, such as when New York criminal justice news outlet The Marshall Project filed a complaint after the Iowa Department of Corrections said it would have to pay $2,000 for prison rape records, the board has expressed concerns about the costs but ultimately determined state law prevented it from taking any action.

“We feel the board serves a very important purpose,” Ben Hammes, a Branstad spokesman who routinely ignores requests for comment from the Informer, told the Register Wednesday. “This is a shared sacrifice throughout the government. We’re in a very tight budget situation, but we believe the public information board will be fine.”

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.