By Brian Costin -
Illinois is ranked as the third-most corrupt state in the nation. And Illinoisans have by far the lowest level of trust in state government in the nation at only 28 percent.
So why are lawmakers trying to make it harder and more expensive for citizens to fight public corruption? A “watchdog tax” bill that does just that has passed both the Illinois House and Senate.
One of the most important citizen watchdog tools is the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which gives normal people access to public information on how their government operates. By researching government activities citizens can deter and expose government corruption and help ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent appropriately.
Under current Illinois law, when a FOIA requester asks for electronic copies of public documents, public bodies are allowed to “charge the requester for the actual cost of purchasing the recording medium.” Usually, this results in a cost of $1 or less for most types of requests.
A new law, House Bill 3796, would increase the cost up to $100 for “voluminous requestors” and dramatically weaken the state’s FOIA laws.
First of all, the term “voluminous requestor” is derogatory and shameful. Government watchdogs should be treated like valuable resources, not public nuisances.
And HB 3786 has an incredibly narrow definition of what constitutes a voluminous requestor.
“(h) ‘Voluminous request’ means a request that: (i) includes more than 5 individual requests for more than 5 different categories of records or a combination of individual requests that total request for more than 5 different categories of records in a period of 20 business days; or (ii) requires the compilation of more than 500 letter or legal-sized pages of public records unless a single requested record exceeds 500 pages.”
Government documents can be quite long. A single board packet for a modestly sized municipality in Illinois can easily total 200 to 300 pages. Ask for two or three board packets and you are now considered a voluminous requestor.
If a citizen watchdog simply asked for all of the documents in our 10-Point Transparency Checklist, the law would allow public bodies to immediately label them as a voluminous requestor.
And the financial implications of the bill would be a real burden for most citizen requesters.
If the electronic record is in PDF format, a $100 charge would be leveed if it takes up more than 160 megabytes of data space. If it isn’t in PDF format, requesters could be charged up to $100 for more than 4 megabytes of data.
For context, Google Drive gives users 15 gigabytes of cloud storage – that’s 15,360 megabytes – for free.
Currently, for electronic requests, public bodies are only allowed to charge the cost of the recording medium to transmit the data, which is usually $1 or less. The proposed charge of up to $100 represents a potential 10,000 percent increase in the cost of a citizen making a simple FOIA request.
The effect of this bill is to discourage people from making FOIA requests and being public watchdogs. For the brave citizens who aren’t discouraged and continue to make FOIA requests, HB 3786 is effectively a “watchdog tax” that erodes the financial resources of people who want to hold government accountable.
The bill had wide bipartisan support in both the Illinois House and Senate. The House vote was 77-36-1 on the same day the bill language was introduced on May 27. Three days later the Senate voted 49-1 in favor of the bill, with only State Sen. Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) voting no.
Sneaking through an anti-transparency bill under cover of the final few hectic days of a legislative session is yet another symbol of what is wrong with Illinois politics.
If Illinois truly wants to begin to fix its corruption problems, the last thing it should be doing is discouraging citizens from making FOIA requests. The public should be given an opportunity to hold government accountable and prevent corruption without the financial burden imposed by this bill.
Gov. Quinn should veto the “watchdog tax” bill and send it back to the legislature for more careful deliberation under the watchful eyes of the public.