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Knocking down barriers

Hoosier lawmakers this week rightly moved to stop noxious proposals that would hinder free speech and access to public information. Their constituents will be best served if members of the General Assembly don’t revive the measures near the session’s end.

The best news was from the Indiana Senate, which rejected a proposal to charge fees to citizens who request public records that they are, by law, entitled to see. The bill, which the House wrongly passed, would have required citizens to pay the hourly wage of a government employee – up to $20 an hour – for any time over two hours it takes to locate documents.

The fee would greatly limit public access to government records. For example, if a citizen wanted to learn how much City Utilities has paid in attorney fees for complex legal matters, it would almost certainly cost that citizen. Locating records the public is allowed to see should be part of government employees’ jobs and not require a subsidy from individual Hoosiers.

Two weeks ago, the Senate deadlocked in a vote on House Bill 1175, with a 23-23 tie. On a Monday revote, senators rightly defeated it, 28-21. Sen. Jim Banks of Columbia City, who has championed open government during this session, and Sen. Susan Glick of LaGrange are commended for voting against the bill.

Sadly, other area senators – including David Long, Travis Holdman, Dennis Kruse and Tom Wyss – all voted in favor of charging Hoosiers a fee to view the public records their taxes paid for.

In the House, the Judiciary Committee made a good step to weaken an unnecessary bill that targeted whistleblowers who discover unacceptable activity on farms and in industries. The committee removed the most objectionable language from Senate Bill 373, nicknamed the ag-gag bill.

Committee members amended the bill to strike out penalties for recording activity on farms and industries with photographs and video, leaving the bill to focus on trespassing and providing false information to help obtain a job – acts that are already illegal.

The proposal, written by Holdman, R-Markle, was in response not to any problems that have occurred in Indiana but to further the agenda of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, a national group of state legislators and businesspeople funded mostly by corporations. ALEC pushes an ultra-conservative agenda and won passage of ag-gag bills last year in Iowa, Missouri and Utah. A similar bill is pending in Tennessee.

As the New York Times reported Sunday, the ag-gag bills came after animal rights activities shot video of animal mistreatment on farms, including workers deliberately burning horses with chemicals, kicking pigs and burning chicks.

While both of Monday’s actions were positive, Hoosiers should be diligent in monitoring whether some lawmakers attempt to resurrect these bad public-policy proposals as the session nears its end.