Kentucky governor vetoes ‘recipe for secrecy’ bill, GOP lawmakers could still override

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Calling it a “recipe for secrecy,” Kentucky’s governor vetoed a measure Tuesday intended to shield state lawmakers from facing court appeals after denying requests to review legislative records.

Gov. Andy Beshear flatly said the bill “defeats the entire purpose” of the state’s open records law.

The legislation generated a backlash from open-records advocates but passed the Republican-led legislature by comfortable margins — more than enough to override the Democratic governor’s veto.

Lawmakers reconvene next week for the final two days of this year’s session, and override votes are expected on a series of gubernatorial vetoes as part of the packed agenda.

Beshear’s criticism of the bill focused on a provision intended to give Kentucky lawmakers the ability to deny requests for legislative records without risk of a court appeal.

The measure aims to remove the opportunity of a person to appeal a denial of legislative records to Franklin County Circuit Court. Instead, the intent is for appeals to be heard by a panel of legislative leadership from both parties.

“The bill would shield the legislative branch from providing public records and would make it the sole judge of what records it should produce, with no ability for a citizen to appeal that decision to a judge,” the governor said at a news conference. “That is a recipe for secrecy.”

The panel that would hear appeals for disclosure of legislative records is made up of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, said GOP Rep. Jason Nemes, who supports the bill.

That bipartisan membership — and the “natural tensions” between Republicans and Democrats — would provide “built-in protections” against concealing records that would be embarrassing for one political party or the other, Nemes said in an interview Tuesday.

Supporters say the measure is meant to keep public agencies from being overburdened by open records requests from out-of-state sources. Responding to those requests saps staff time and costs money, they say.

Critics of the bill said it would create impediments for non-Kentucky residents seeking access to public records in the state.

Beshear said Tuesday that the bill “does not live up to our values of a transparent government.”

When the bill surfaced, it was criticized by many media outlets as an attempt to weaken the open records law in part by restricting access to public records to Kentucky residents.

After initial House approval, a number of groups and individuals, including The Associated Press, co-signed a letter from the Open Government Coalition warning the bill would “create unneeded and unwanted impediments to public access” and would not ease the burden on public agencies.

Lawmakers responded by loosening the residency requirements in order to make records requests. The restriction was lifted on people who work or own property in Kentucky and news-gathering organizations were exempted from the residency requirement.

But the bill’s sponsors stuck with the provision giving lawmakers the ability to deny requests for legislative records without risk of a court appeal.

Amye Bensenhaver, a former assistant attorney general who helped start the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, praised the governor’s veto. The group was gratified that Beshear recognized the bill poses a “serious threat to public access,” she said.

Conceding that an override is likely, she said the bill could potentially face a court challenge, especially the part shielding the denial of requests for legislative records from judicial review.