With a tense legislative session all but over, one thing is clear: Nebraska state government is less transparent now than it was back in January.
Two bills that reduce the amount of information available to Nebraskans, one specifically exempting firearm registration data from state open records laws and another that shielded competitive and proprietary information generated by Nebraska’s public power districts, passed overwhelmingly and now await Gov. Pete Ricketts’ signature.
In and of themselves, these acts are small. But they are pieces of a growing, troubling trend of undermining government transparency. The undercurrent that flows along with these incremental changes treats information as somehow inherently negative and harmful if released publicly.
Knowledge is power for the citizenry. Without the protection of robust open records laws to ensure documents are accessible to the public, it becomes far harder to hold officials — from the White House to city hall — accountable the people whom they serve.
Any body of elected officials is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently proclaimed in his Gettysburg Address.
And while a copy of that speech stands outside the Capitol in a city named for him, another quote on the building, one from Hartley Burr Alexander, better sums up the citizen Legislature’s duty to transparency: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”
Since Sen. George Norris championed the transition to a unicameral body, the Nebraska Legislature evolved to be more transparent and accessible than its peers. All committee hearings are open to the public, and the one-house design means this state has no need for a powerful conference committee which could rewrite legislation in the dark.
Though Nebraska’s legislative process is as open to the citizen as any state, those same citizens must be able to keep watch on local and state governmental agencies. Presuming the governor signs those aforementioned bills into law, doing that will become harder in this state.
To the credit of Nebraska’s public power providers, their amendment to a far-reaching but otherwise innocuous natural resources bill didn’t touch the language of the state’s open records laws. That’s an immense positive. But the business practices of their energy cooperatives — which, as public power, are owned by ratepayers — will be a bit more obscured.
The legislation that carved out a specific public records exemption, meanwhile, faced limited opposition. A withdrawn motion to bracket the bill paled in the face of 17 cosigners. Yet Nebraskans can no longer access information from gun permit or license applications, even though these records don't guarantee gun ownership.
Taken in a vacuum, these decisions are drops in the bucket. To preserve transparency and accountability in government, this wave mustn’t be allowed to gain force.