KENTUCKY (4/1/12) – A flurry of activity at the end of state budget sessions is as much of a ritual in Frankfort as madness is in March.
Unfortunately, part of this routine involves negotiating critical decisions concerning the commonwealth’s budget behind closed doors.
So while I was not surprised to discover the hallway leading to Room 131 of the Capitol Annex roped off during recent budget conference committee meetings, it still felt like a step back.
Policymakers have come together in recent years to make state government more transparent. They have agreed to require all three branches to put their checkbooks online. Gov. Steve Beshear has at least taken some steps toward opening up agencies within the executive branch through his administration’s “Open Door” site.
Yet when it comes to the most important portion of the state budget decision-making process, we still have roped-off areas, covered windows and armed guards.
This all adds up to a denial of access for statehouse reporters, citizens and even lawmakers, communicating that they are unwelcome in the room where negotiations critical to the size, scope and priorities of the spending plan funded by taxpayers occur.
At least Kentucky’s budget committee hearings were not held completely behind a veil of secrecy – unlike Washington’s debt-cutting Super Committee that recently met to do “the people’s business” even though most of the people’s representatives were not even allowed in the room.
At least a lone Kentucky Educational Television camera was allowed to record the negotiations in Frankfort.
Washington’s elitist-acting Super Committee, on the other hand, refused all requests to televise their meetings.
Still, one public-TV camera doth not transparency make. No commercial TV or radio news outfits were allowed to plunk their microphones down in full view of the politicians in Frankfort as they made last-minute deals doling out our tax dollars in a room with the blinds pulled.
What’s wrong with the sunshine?
If you’re going to allow a single camera in the room, why not go all the way and just allow reporters, other legislators and even citizens to observe the body language and environment camouflaged by the camera?
When I was a government reporter for the Bowling Green Daily News, the newspaper’s attorneys would have been inviting commissioners to clear out their schedules for court dates had a city manager or mayor tried to limit my ability to cover meetings by forcing me to watch cable-TV’s coverage.
No doubt there were some that would have liked nothing more – because they were “more comfortable” discussing issues out of the public purview. At least that is what I’m often told.
That’s probably why some leading House Democrats – which, as the majority party, control the agenda – reportedly even wanted that lone KET camera removed as discussions progressed. It has been in the past.
But the camera should always remain, and others should be allowed.
Besides, do you really want politicians to become “comfortable” horse trading with your tax dollars? Do you really want reporters – who provide the only access some Kentuckians have for what’s happening in their government – being forced to watch the proceedings in another room?
Our political leaders need to feel the presence of the press in the room. Part of full and complete pellucidity is observing the nuances of the whole event, including all actions, reactions and side conversations.
Can you imagine asking fans lucky enough to get tickets to attend college basketball’s Final Four Event of the Ages: “What’s the big deal? Why do you actually have to be in the room where the game is played? There’s going to be TV cameras there. Why not just watch it at home?”
It’s just not the same – whether you’re talking about bouncing basketballs or paranoid politicians.
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