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Reaction on new agency is mixed

FRANKFORT — A proposal backed by House and Senate leaders that would create a powerful investigative agency for the Kentucky General Assembly got mixed reaction Monday from rank-and-file legislators and the state auditor.

Dual bills to create a General Assembly Accountability and Review Division have been filed by Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, over the past month. Stumbo filed his bill Monday.

The investigative committee would conduct audits and investigations and would monitor executive branch activities and initiatives. Its findings could remain secret, exempt from the state's public-records laws and court subpoena.

Stumbo and Williams have said the General Assembly needs more oversight of state programs, particularly as the state's fiscal health sours.

State Auditor Crit Luallen questioned Monday whether the review committee's responsibilities' were too close to those of her office.

"My concern is that this duplicates our work," Luallen said. "We have independence under the law."

Williams dismissed her concerns.

"This will in no way affect what the state auditor does," he said.

Luallen is responsible for auditing local governments and state government, "but we also have the responsibility as legislators to follow money and investigate expenditures in new programming."

"We can't wait for a separate branch of government," he said.

Others were disturbed by the proposed committee's ability to hide its findings from the general public.

"I don't like the secrecy," said Rep. Brent Yonts, D-Greenville. "I don't like the fact that it's not subject to the open-records laws."

Sen. Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, said the proposed committee would be unnecessarily clandestine.

"It is said to provide transparency, but from my initial look at the bill, it puts too much information behind a door with a big padlock," Stein said.

Williams said the agency's records wouldn't need to be made public because it would only compile documents from other sources, not create new documents.

"These documents already exist in whatever entity, wherever they are," he said.

Pierce Whites, chief of staff for Stumbo, said the same language exempting documents from the Open Records Act has been used for other investigative bodies, such as the Office of Educational Accountability.

Still, Whites said Stumbo is open to amending the bill to address some of the concerns raised by lawmakers.

The secrecy issue aside, some lawmakers embraced the idea of an agency to ensure efficiency in state government.

Rep. Tim Moore, R-Elizabethtown, said the General Assembly should have a watchdog agency similar to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which Congress uses to help monitor federal programs.

Others, such as Yonts and Democrat Jim Wayne of Louisville, say the legislature doesn't need any more investigative committees, noting that state law already requires a Program Review and Investigations Committee and a Government Contract Review Committee.

"The legislature, while it's in session, does have subpoena power," Wayne said. "I don't think it's ever been used, at least not since I've been here."

But Whites said the new investigative body would have a very specific mission. The program review committee's tasks are often very broad — such as looking at the Department of Corrections' budget.

"This is a laser, where that's more of a shotgun," Whites said.