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State Capitol

Philosopher and NU alumnus Hartley Burr Alexander's words honoring pioneers inscribed on a north stair buttress at the Nebraska State Capitol.

Nebraska’s commitment to open government is etched in stone – quite prominently – on its monument to government.

Hartley Burr Alexander regarded transparency in government so important that his words have endured for nearly a century above the main entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

Indeed, it is. Nebraska’s government of, by and for the people must be open to those it serves – because transparency, and the resulting accountability, serves the people well.

We’re in the midst of Sunshine Week, an annual celebration marking the freedom of information and the public’s right to know about their government. The event’s name is derived from the idea of shining light onto the inner workings of government ensures business is conducted efficiently and ethically.

Nebraskans and Americans want their elected officials and public servants in the executive branch to perform their duties without waste and graft. They want behavior becoming of the esteemed positions these individuals hold.

A 2018 study found direct correlation between local newspapers’ decline and the increased cost of municipal borrowing. The report’s abstract notes “local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.”

And open-records laws remain a powerful weapon to benefit citizens on this and other topics. The fight isn’t always easy – but it illustrates the lengths to which media outlets go to require government transparency.

Take the execution of Carey Dean Moore, for instance.

The Journal Star was among several entities that resorted to costly litigation to determine the source of the execution drugs, arguing the state was violating public-records laws to keep that information from the very public whose dollars bought the substances.

Though those entities won an initial victory, the state appealed – meaning the source of drugs remains unknown, seven months after they were used to kill Moore. His death, too, remains a source of concern because of the 14 minutes a curtain blocked witnesses' view – the literal antithesis of transparency.

To quote Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who introduced a much-needed bill that would increase the transparency around executions: “We are not going to sit and let the government tell us, ‘Trust us; we did it properly.’ If that's so, then let us watch and make sure that that is happening properly.”

Alexander would no doubt praise that sort of spirit, one that can be applied in far more instances.

Bills proposing public-records exemptions for various industries and agencies come before the Nebraska Legislature every year. Though none seek to gut the law, these carve-outs slowly erode its effectiveness.

Nebraskans must be equally persistent in demanding from their government the kind of transparency correctly labeled as the “salvation of the state."

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