By: Robert Tanner, AP National Writer
(AP) A growing number of state lawmakers are closing doors to the public as they try to resolve the serious budget problems nearly all states face this year. Advocates for open government are worried by the trend.
Almost the entire Alaska House met privately for more than two hours Wednesday to talk about the state’s $1 billion deficit. Tennessee’s governor and legislative leaders met over two days last week and came up with a list of budget proposals — but insisted they not be quoted.
“When you get intractable political problems, sometimes you need to try untraditional methods to solve them,” said Alaska state Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat and the House minority leader.
But such steps draw complaints from open-government advocates, who say that even if the meetings are legal, they leave the people who elected the lawmakers out of the loop.
“They’re thinking, ‘It is much more efficient for us to close the doors and cut deals in smoke-filled rooms,'” said Charles Davis, who heads the Freedom of Information Center at the Missouri School of Journalism.
“I won’t argue with that fact. It certainly is more efficient. The problem is, it isn’t our form of government.”
In many states, some level of private discussion often accompanies budget deliberations, from informal meetings of legislators with the governor to quick hallway huddles in the midst of open debates.
But this year is putting the budget-making process to the test. Nearly every state is dealing with at least hundreds of millions of dollars in shortfalls, as incoming revenues fail to keep up with spending. Last year’s spending cuts haven’t gone far enough in most states, so now more cuts — and tax increases — are being considered.
As the debates continue, so do the private meetings.
* In North Carolina last week, top legislative budget writers from both the state House and Senate met behind closed doors. They discussed Gov. Mike Easley’s proposal to borrow from a Hurricane Floyd-relief fund to cover a shortfall that could hit $900 million.
* In New York, in long-standing tradition, a wide-ranging measure to increase spending on health care that also raised taxes on cigarettes by 39 cents a pack was worked out in private meetings including Gov. George Pataki and legislative leaders.
* In Tennessee, where financial difficulties have so inflamed public opinion that anti-tax protesters last year threw rocks through windows at the state Capitol, Gov. Don Sundquist met with legislative leaders at the governor’s mansion.
It was opened to the press — but only if the governor and legislators were not quoted. Economic experts and members of Sundquist’s cabinet who attended to answer questions from legislators could be quoted. “Even partially open is not closed,” said Sundquist spokeswoman Alexia Levison.
Davis, who monitors public access issues for the journalism center, said few would be shocked by the fact that behind-the-scenes dealing happens. “What would be surprising to most people is the extent to which it happens, and the frequency with which it happens,” he said. “The truth is, they close meetings whenever it’s expedient.”
In Alaska, House Speaker Brian Porter, a Republican from Anchorage, defended the decision to close the doors to the public. “In my humble opinion, half of these people wouldn’t have said what they said if the cameras were there,” he said.
The Freedom of Information Center can be found online at http://foi.missouri.edu/.