Rep. Ben Loring, D-Miami, has authored an amendment to Oklahoma’s Open Meeting Act which would remove the bill’s existing exemption for the State Legislature.
If enacted, House Bill (HB) 2914 would subject the Oklahoma Legislature to the same rules that govern the meetings of local governments across the state.
“Everybody here loves to talk about transparency in government, and this is a bill to truly bring some transparency,” Loring said.
The bill was assigned to the Rules Committee on Feb. 4 and cannot progress further until taken up by that committee.
The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act is an extensive list of rules that govern the conduct of public bodies in Oklahoma, with a few notable exceptions. One of those exceptions specifically mentioned in the law is for the state Legislature.
Without this exemption, the Legislature would be required to take transparency measures similar to those required of municipal and county governments. Specifically, the Open Meeting Act requires “advanced public notice specifying the time and place…as well as the subject matter or matters to be considered at such meeting.”
Loring said under the current system, it can be hard to keep his constituents properly informed about legislation they might be interested in.
“Oftentimes, I don’t know, and so I can’t let my constituents know what’s going to be going on and when,” Loring said.
Although Loring’s amendment would require the Legislature to be governed by the Open Meeting Act, it also inserts a new exemption for the political party caucuses of both the House and Senate.
“The reality of how we’re set up is, we’re a two party system in the state of Oklahoma,” Loring said. “A lot of what is done, a lot of the discussion, a lot of the actual process of making legislation has to go on behind closed doors, where legislators feel like they can have a frank open discussion with their group in order to ‘make the sausage,’ as the old expression goes.”
Stillwater’s delegates to the Oklahoma House of Representatives were united in their stated desire for transparency.
Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, said HB 2914 has the opportunity to increase citizen involvement in legislative processes.
“I see that already now, at our county level and our city level,” Ranson said. “I think it could also be done on the state level as well.”
Ranson said the exception included in the proposed revision for legislative political caucuses was appropriate and stressed the difference between the strategy discussed in caucus meetings and the policies discussed on the House floor.
“Policy, I think, is really what affects our population the most and so should, in fact, be transparent,” Ranson said.
While Ranson represents most of Stillwater as the Representative for District 34, John Talley, R-Stillwater, represents parts of Stillwater as the Representative for District 33.
Talley said he shares his colleagues’ desire for transparency but is unsure how he would vote on HB 2914 if given the opportunity.
“Do we need more transparency in the Legislature?” Talley said. “Always. We can always have more transparency of when bills come up.”
Talley said he has some initial concerns with the bill and how it might affect the Legislature’s ability to “fine-tune” different pieces of legislation. He also said when important bills are being considered, he turns to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram seeking constituent feedback.
“I’ve read the bill that Ben Loring is doing,” Talley said. “I think it’s a good idea, I’m just not set yet on which way I’ll vote if it came up.”
Neither Talley nor Ranson will be able to cast a vote for or against the bill unless it makes it through the Rules Committee. The bill has until the end of this legislative session to be considered.
“It has to pass committee, and if they never even hear it, then it’s dead at that point,” Loring said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Trish Ranson as the representative for District 33, but she actually represents District 34. Likewise, John Talley was listed as the representative for District 34, but he represents District 33.