Jan 30, 2024 - News

Amendments to bolster Arkansas' sunshine law now ready for signatures

Illustration of a manila folder closed with a padlock.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Attorney General Tim Griffin on Monday approved language for an initiated act — a second measure intended to strengthen the state's law on freedom of information.

  • Flashback: The approval follows Griffin's rejection of the proposed act late Thursday and his approval of language for a related constitutional amendment Wednesday.
  • The AG's approval is required before sponsors can begin collecting signatures to get their measures on the November ballot.

Why it matters: Arkansas' Freedom of Information Act protects the public's right to access many government documents. Journalists, interest groups and citizens frequently use it to hold officials accountable.

Details: The two measures drafted by Arkansas Citizens for Transparency (ACT) — a group of lawyers, legislators and a representative of the Arkansas Press Association — seek to establish governmental transparency as a right of citizens and to make it harder for elected officials to shield information.

1. The initiated act language approved Monday, known as the Arkansas Government Disclosure Act of 2024, seeks to codify a definition of a public meeting and broaden the legal definitions of a "governing body" and "communication" among members. It also would:

  • Create stiffer penalties for government bodies violating the sunshine law.
  • Make planning and security services of the governor and other officials public after three months, partially reversing a law passed last year shielding those documents.
  • Create the Arkansas Government Transparency Commission to help citizens with records requests.

2. The constitutional amendment language Griffin approved last week, called the Arkansas Government Openness Amendment, would make it more difficult for lawmakers to change the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

  • Future changes to the amendment would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the state legislature, followed by a public vote in the next general election.

Be smart: An initiated act must be approved by a vote of the people and creates a statute that may be altered or repealed by the Arkansas Legislature by a two-thirds vote.

  • An amendment to the Arkansas Constitution may only be changed by another vote of the people unless specified within the language of the amendment.
  • The initiated act requires a little more than 72,000 signatures to get on the ballot; the amendment requires roughly 91,000. Signatures must be submitted by July 5.

How we got here: ACT began working on language for the proposals after the special session of the legislature in September.

  • FOIA was one of the issues lawmakers tackled at the request of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said the law needed to be updated with electronic communications in mind to make government more efficient and who also cited personal security concerns.
  • After pushback from both Republicans and Democrats, lawmakers passed an FOIA bill that essentially shields records related to the governor's security detail and constitutional officers — much narrower than original bills.

The bottom line: ACT will begin collecting signatures for both the initiated act and the amendment right away, lawyer and ACT member David Couch told Axios.

What we're watching: The group sued Griffin on Jan. 23 and asked the state Supreme Court to compel him to either approve or rewrite their amendment.

  • The approved version isn't exactly what the group wanted, Couch said, so they plan to continue with the suit because "issues raised in that proceeding are important issues that need to be decided."
  • Along with making it harder to shield information, the group's preferred version would've made it easier for the legislature to make laws even more transparent.
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