Lawmakers looking at ways to make Illinois government a little less open

Two years ago, lawmakers in Springfield passed a law designed to bring more sunshine into government.

But now that those much-lauded changes took effect, legislators are thinking about pulling down the blinds by supporting bills to knock out some of that light.

This year, Democrats and Republicans in both chambers have introduced bills to change -- or in many cases, completely gut -- the state’s open records law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

This law guarantees Illinoisans access to public records, so that they can be informed about their government and shine a light on waste and corruption.

Although the FOIA has been in place for decades, it was revised in 2009 with the goal of increasing compliance with the law to ensure requestors gain access records in a timely fashion.

But just a little more than a year after those changes took effect, lawmakers are mulling plans to undo their good work and greatly reduce your ability to access public records.

We’ve already outlined our opposition to House Bill 340, but there’s an equally terrifying plan pending in the Senate.

Senate Bill 2203, if enacted, would significantly hinder Illinoisans' ability to obtain government records. This plan sponsored by Sens. Ed Maloney, David Koehler and Pam Althoff would:

-- Allow public bodies to charge requestors for the time and resources spent searching, retrieving and copying public records, at a rate of up to $25 hour. (That equates to a $52,000 annual salary!) The law currently only allows public bodies to charge requestors for the material costs of reproducing files, like per-page copying fees.

-- Limit how much information individuals could expect to access in a timely fashion. SB 2203 would allow public bodies to label FOIA requests as “vexatious” if the individual seeking records had sought to access a mere 5 records within a week, or if they sought a document which was $1,500 pages or more. Once labeled “vexatious” – as in harassing – the request would go to the back of the line, and public bodies would be free to take an unlimited amount of time to fork over the public document.

-- Exempt more information from public scrutiny, including information about law and administrative enforcement investigations and information about public sector job applicants.

We urge you to contact your lawmakers and encourage them to oppose any bills that would weaken the Freedom of Information Act and put the public in the dark about its government.

(ICPR has a tool to help you communicate with your lawmakers, even if you don't know their names or contact information. It's simple! Visit Legislator Letter program, then enter your address, select an issue you wish to write about and hit send!)