- Associated Press - Thursday, March 16, 2017

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - In a legislative session checkered with attempts to limit government openness, Idaho lawmakers advanced a proposal Thursday closing a stark exemption to the Idaho Open Meeting Law.

According to the proposed legislation, boards and commissions created by executive order would be subjected to the Idaho Open Meeting Law. Currently, these panels are not required to let the public know when they’re meeting, post an agenda or keep minutes summarizing what they discussed. Nor are the meetings required to be open to the public, even though most — if not all — are.

House members unanimously advanced the bill in the middle of Sunshine Week. It’s a time of year around James Madison’s birthday, March 16, honoring his advocacy for the Bill of Rights.

“We’ve always assumed that virtually everything that government does in the state of Idaho is open to the public, and always operated with that assumption,” said Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, who is the bill’s sponsor. “However, we discovered that there is just a little flaw in our law. It unwittingly exempts certain agencies that are created by executive order from the Open Meetings Law. It wasn’t intended to be that way and it should not be that way.”

The proposal is one of the rare bills introduced this legislative session that increases the state’s laws protecting the public’s right to an open and transparent government. There have been several attempts introduced by lawmakers to limit public access, though they have not advanced far in the Statehouse.

For example, earlier this year, a northern Idaho lawmaker introduced a proposal making all emails, texts and other communications among members of the Idaho Legislature private and blocked from public disclosure. The legislation has yet to make it out of committee, but has raised concern among government transparency advocates that the fight over keeping legislative communications open will be an ongoing battle in future legislative sessions.

Other proposals this legislative session have included attempting to create an entirely new definition of what constitutes public records in a bill outlining retention guidelines for police body camera footage - even though the state already has that addressed in the Idaho Public Records Act. Backers of the bills have since removed that section of the bill.

Meanwhile, the State Board of Education has attempted to float legislation that would allow the agency to deny public records requests if a person made multiple separate requests, but combined could be used to identify a student. Federal law already bans the public from obtaining identifiable student data.

HB 273 now moves to the Senate for approval.

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