FRANKFORT, Ky. – State Representative Chris Harris has pre-filed legislation for the 2016 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly, which seeks to expand Kentucky’s Open Records Act to include private entities that operate public utilities.
If passed, private corporations under contract with state or local government authorities must comply with commonsense transparency and accountability requirements set forth in Kentucky’s Open Records Act. “In recent years we have started to see state and local governments contracting with private corporations to perform basic public services like operating public utilities. When those utilities are operated directly by the government, they are subject to Kentucky’s Open Records Act. However, once bid and contracted out to a private corporation, the public gets placed in the dark. The public’s right to know how its money is being spent shouldn’t weaken just because a public utility decides to privatize its operations; it’s still taxpayer money,” Rep. Harris said.
In 2012, the Kentucky Open Records Act was amended by HB 496 which redefined the meaning of a “public agency” to exclude private companies contracting with the government for goods and services when the company is awarded a contract through competitive bidding. While that makes sense for providers of products or limited construction contracts, the change applied equally to public utilities, which have a monopoly on providing that service to the public. This loophole was most likely an unintended consequence of that legislation, which Rep. Harris seeks to correct. This new legislation keeps the 2012 reform in place while creating a simple exception to bring public utilities operated by private corporations under the Open Records Act. Specifically, it will apply to those corporations that provide water and wastewater services, fire protection, corrections and incarceration, law enforcement, tax assessment and collection, or waste management.
“I’ve spoken with many stakeholders in this effort. We believe this bill increases accountability and transparency without overly burdening companies that provide vital services to people across Kentucky,” Rep. Harris said. “Taxpayers have a fundamental right to know how their tax dollars are being spent. It’s what I believe. It’s what many legislators believe and it’s what the vast majority of Kentuckians believe. If the current law isn’t changed and remains as-is, the public will lose forever its right to know. We will be without the ability to hold government accountable for the millions of dollars that pass annually through public entities to private corporations operating our own public utilities.” “We support open and transparent government for all Kentuckians,” said Richard Beliles, chairman of Kentucky Common Cause. “The public deserves to have that transparency and level of accountability when the public interest is in question, regardless of whether the public or private sector is the primary source of action.” David Thompson, Executive Director of the Kentucky Press Association, whose organization is in support of this legislation, commented, “We appreciate the efforts of Representative Harris who has witnessed firsthand the unintended consequences that are resulting from the change in the Open Records law three years ago. The change has not been interpreted as intended, and that has resulted in questions about the public’s access to financial records involving taxpayer money. This change, which KPA will support and work to pass in the 2016 legislature, will clarify when private businesses that receive public money are subject to releasing information about the use of that taxpayer money.” BR164 will be introduced for consideration in the 2016 Regular Session of the Kentucky General Assembly, which begins in January. Following successful passage by both the House and Senate, it would go to the Governor for his signature and become law in June 2016.