Herald-Leader Editorial

Kudos on two bills that let the sunshine in

Kudos on taxing districts, child deaths

March 14, 2013 

It is so easy, so commonplace to complain about the overabundance of information that envelopes us at home, at work, in the car, on our telephones, everywhere, that it might seem odd that we set aside a week to lobby for even more, at least about our governments.

That's what Sunshine Week, this week, is all about: Protecting and promoting the right of citizens to have access to information about what their governments are doing and how.

So, it's a nice coincidence that just this week the Kentucky General Assembly has passed legislation that will push some long-neglected parts of government into public view.

The biggest measure, certainly dollarwise, is House Bill 1. The law attempts to wrangle Kentucky's 1,200-plus special taxing districts, which control some $2.7 billion in public funds annually, into some kind of order.

Perhaps most importantly, it also creates a website that will allow any citizen with Internet access to explore their budgets and activities.

In theory this information was always available to the public under Kentucky's open records laws. But there's a difference between theory and practice that became abundantly clear last year when State Auditor Adam Edelen released the results of a six-month study his office had conducted on these districts.

Even at the time he released his report, Edelen acknowledged that his office couldn't be sure it had found all the districts. Of those he did document, about 15 percent had not submitted required financial reports with the state.

Many do their work well and openly but it was clear that others didn't understand the public nature of their mission. Responding to the auditor's questionnaire about publishing reports online, some of the responses included: "This contains information the public is not entitled to know;" "Would rather the public contact us directly to gain information so we know who is asking;" and, "I just don't think all this information needs to be public."

Another measure will provide insight into what happened, or didn't, when a child in Kentucky dies as the result of abuse or neglect. This newspaper and others have been fighting for years to gain more access to files at the Cabinet for Health and Family Services on these tragic cases.

The law, House Bill 290, with amendments in the Senate to increase transparency, continues the role of the independent review panel appointed last year by Gov. Steve Beshear to examine each of these cases. Previously, reviews had been conducted internally at the Cabinet. The Senate amendments increase public access to the panel's deliberations and to documents used by the panel.

The idea, of course, is that opening these tragic cases to greater, more arms-length examination will point the way toward improving the system and so save lives in the future.

Sunshine laws get their nickname from the belief that light makes things work better, it disinfects and illuminates. By contrast, bad things happen all too easily in the dark. Both of these new laws illustrate that concept.

So, our thanks to legislators for voting to let new light shine on Kentucky government this week.

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