A step in the right direction: Gov. Quinn vetoes “watchdog tax” bill

Brian Costin

Open government and government transparency expert

Brian Costin
July 6, 2014

A step in the right direction: Gov. Quinn vetoes “watchdog tax” bill

The Illinois General Assembly recently sent a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn that would make it much harder and more expensive for citizens to fight public corruption through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The governor did not sign this bill – and that’s good news for Illinoisans. Illinois is already ranked as the...

The Illinois General Assembly recently sent a bill to Gov. Pat Quinn that would make it much harder and more expensive for citizens to fight public corruption through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

The governor did not sign this bill – and that’s good news for Illinoisans. Illinois is already ranked as the third-most corrupt state in the nation, and Illinoisans have by far the lowest level of trust in state government in the country at 28 percent, according to a recent Gallup poll.

But the General Assembly may override the governor’s veto by passing the bill with supermajorities.

Currently, in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests, public bodies are only allowed to charge the cost of the medium to transmit the data, such as a CD. These costs are usually $1 or less.

According to the bill before the governor, if the electronic record is in PDF format, a $100 charge would be levied if it takes up more than 160 megabytes of data space. If the FOIA request isn’t in PDF format, including audio and video files, requesters could be charged up to $100 for more than four megabytes of data. Any more than a few minutes of audio or video recording would easily exceed that limit.

House Bill 3796 had the potential to increase the costs of FOIA requests by up to 10,000 percent and make it considerably harder for citizens to gain access to multiple large documents at a single time.

Thankfully, Quinn has vetoed the “watchdog tax” bill in its entirety.

He stated in his veto message:

“House Bill 3796 is a bill that reduces government transparency by limiting the ability of citizens to seek public records under the Freedom of Information Act. The bill as proposed would make it more difficult for citizens to obtain a large volume of records. It would also slow down the process for individuals who lack electronic means to request or obtain information.  Such burdens on the public penalize anyone seeking to learn more about their government. Accordingly, I must return this bill without my approval.”

The bill had wide bipartisan support in both the Illinois House and Senate. The House vote was 77-36-1 on the same day the bill language was introduced on May 27. Three days later, the Senate voted 49-1 in favor of the bill, with only state Sen. Tom Cullerton, D-Villa Park, voting no.

While these vote totals exceed the numbers needed to override the governor’s veto, much more public scrutiny has come since the bill passed the Illinois House and Senate in the waning days of the legislative session.

Groups opposing HB 3796 include: Chicago Headline Club, Citizen Advocacy Center, Illinois PIRG, Better Government Association, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice and the Illinois Policy Institute.

Quinn’s veto ensures it will be much harder for lawmakers to sneak the bill past an unsuspecting and uninformed public. With the veto session in November, time will allow for a more meaningful public discussion of the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and the impacts of HB 3796 on public watchdogs across the state of Illinois.

If state legislators are serious about fixing Illinois’ public corruption problem they should vote against overriding the Governor’s veto this fall and prevent the “watchdog tax” bill from becoming law.

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