Gov. Pat Quinn took the advice of good-government groups and vetoed a bill that would place extra burdens, and in some instances costs of up to $100, on people filing Freedom of Information Act requests.
House Bill 3796 cleared the General Assembly by wide margins in the rushed last days of the spring session. It would allow governments to identify certain requests as "voluminous," delaying them and charging between $20 and $100 for electronic data.
Quinn vetoed the bill Friday, stating that it penalized those "seeking to learn more about their government." His veto message was not posted to the General Assembly's website as of early Friday evening.
All but one of McHenry County's representatives in the House voted against the bill. which passed on a 77-36 vote. Two of the county's three Senators voted in favor of it, and Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, was one of the bills' co-sponsors. It passed the Senate on a 49-1 vote.
Supporters, such as bill sponsor Rep. Robert Rita, D-Blue Island, said that governments need help because they spend too much time honoring excessive records requests meant to be a nuisance rather than legitimate requests for information. Althoff could not be reached for comment Friday.
But opponents, like state Rep. David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, called the bill a "draconian step."
"It's important the public have full access to data from local governments. I think it's a terrible bill that will limit the ability of the public to know what's going on," McSweeney said.
The FOIA law already allows governments to impose restrictions on "recurrent requesters" and for requests that can be deemed "unduly burdensome."
Lawmakers could override Quinn's veto when they convene later this year for the fall veto session.
The bill defines a "voluminous request" as more than five individual requests for more than five different categories of records in 20 business days or less, or a request that requires collecting more than 500 pages. It also sets up a pay scale for electronic documents depending on file size. Public bodies will be able to charge up to $100 for 160 megabytes or more of documents in PDF format, or for four megabytes or more of non-PDF documents.
News media, academic and scientific organizations and nonprofit groups are exempt, but the vast majority of FOIA requests come from the public, according to state records. What's more, a meeting packet from one municipal or county government can easily run hundreds of pages long.
Watchdog groups trying to clamp down on Illinois' reputation for corruption urged Quinn to veto the bill. In an open letter to Quinn, Better Government Association President and CEO Andy Shaw alleged the bill "unfairly and unjustifiably raise significant barriers" to people wanting information to which they are entitled by law.
"The bill essentially taxes individuals for getting a municipality's electronic records – a charge that, on its face, is problematic because this is typically data and information that's already been paid for with tax dollars. Even if there were a need for such user fees, the proposed prices outlined in this legislation are onerous and bear no apparent relation to the real and much lower cost of producing electronic records," Shaw wrote.
But proponents are writing to Quinn as well. The Illinois Municipal League, which often fights for bills curtailing FOIA, called the bill common-sense legislation in its letter urging Quinn to sign it into law.
"This will help prevent a single FOIA requester from tying up the staff time and resources of a public body with an oversized request and will allow the public body to respond to all FOIA requesters in an effective and efficient manner," Executive Director Larry Frang wrote.
The Citizen Advocacy Center also opposes the bill, which Executive Director Maryam Judar said "significantly curbs the ability of the public to monitor government activity." Judar said the new provision in essence will create a catch-22 for record seekers – people who ask for multiple documents in one FOIA request to avoid running afoul of the "recurring requester" provision will now run afoul of the "voluminous" one.
"Citizen watchdogs who use FOIA to keep their government accountable will be hampered between these two different designations ... requests often do require more than five categories of records within a 20-day period. This is effectively going to shut out a means we have of keeping government accountable in Illinois," Judar said.
A 2011 investigation by the Northwest Herald revealed that many local governments pay lobbyists with tax dollars to fight for legislation curtailing open-government laws and oppose legislation strengthening them.
State lawmakers in the wake of the arrest and impeachment of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich significantly strengthened a FOIA law that critics long alleged was one of the nation's weakest and easiest to abuse. Efforts have been made in every spring session since to pass laws peeling back the changes, often led by local government lobbying groups.
While Rita and others say FOIA abuse is a problem that needs to be stopped, McSweeney said he doesn't buy the argument that abuse of FOIA is widespread.
"I think it's isolated, and I don't think everybody else should be punished for the nuisance actions of a few who aren't acting in good faith," McSweeney said.
About this series
"No More Excuses" is the Northwest Herald's ongoing series about the public's right to know in Illinois.
On the Net
You can read the text of House Bill 3796 at www.ilga.gov.
You can learn more about the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts at http://foia.ilattorneygeneral.net.
How they voted
In the House, Rep. Tim Schmitz, R-Batavia, voted yes, while Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, Jack Franks, D-Marengo, Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, and David McSweeney, R-Barrington Hills, voted no.
In the Senate, Sen. Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry and a co-sponsor of the bill, voted yes, as did Sen. Karen McConnaughay, R-St. Charles. Sen. Dan Duffy, R-Lake Barrington, did not vote on the measure.