By David Tulis
State government should not attempt to charge people to view public records because government is “a fat cat” whose wealth is stratospheric.
That’s one of my points this week as the Office of Open Records Counsel gathers public viewpoints across the state in an effort to evaluate proposals to charge members of the public fees for access to public records.
In Knoxville on Tuesday I join about about 80 people crammed into a rented conference room. Most object to the idea of charging for access. The state already allows charges for copies of documents and has an open records statute that lets the press and the citizenry exercise their free press rights to study and expose actions of government.
The state is worth F$79.2 billion, I point out in a brief that comes in at less than the three minutes allotted. That dollar amount is the sum of two figures, that of the state’s net worth and that of a liquid capital slush fund of government money that is worth more than the state itself.
The State of Tennessee, a political corporation, is valued at F$31.7 billion, which includes infrastructure, lands, buildings and income. The slush fund — the Tennessee Comprehensive Retirement System — is worth a staggering F$47 billion. These figures are published in the 2014 CAFR for each organism (a CAFR is a comprehensive annual financial report, universally ignored by the media).
Shall an entity so wealthy “nickel and dime” commoners to merely VIEW filings, reports, grant requests, covenants, contracts and agreements? Shall I, a poor journalist and editor, be forced to buy my way to the filing cabinet or the computer terminal to examine government documents created with taxpayer dollars?
I go out of my way to mention two overlooked constitutional provisions disfavoring the proposal.
➤ The U.S. constitution guarantees “to each state” a republican form of government (Article 4, section 4). Implied therein is an informed public served by democratically elected representatives. This form of government recognizes the due process rights of the people, their right to be treated fairly in dealings with government (whether civil or criminal). Access to courts, to government and to the state are implied in republican and free government.
➤ The Tennessee constitution forbids monopolies and perpetuities as being “contrary to the genius of a free people” and shall not be allowed (see bill of rights, section 22). How does this point have bearing on a proposal to tax access to public records? Because it creates a library monopoly, I averred. It makes the state a cartel library, with people inside government able to have free access to all state data and records, and people outside government denied free access. Monopolies are hostile to the idea of a free market and a free people, and the state should not create a library of its data accessible to commoners only by fee (a higher, above-market price). Monopolies are propped by law, and a regime of secrecy in Tennessee would be no different.
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