Arkansas is an amazing place.
We stand out for many things, some good, some bad but all are pieces of the mosaic that makes us who we are.
One of those bad things is that we’re the only state in USA to become fiscally insolvent. The Diamond State earned that dubious distinction in 1933 after an ill-conceived road building initiative led to bond payments that the state couldn’t afford.
But here’s one of the good: 1967 we set another benchmark when the legislature enacted Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s bold plan for open and transparent government. The rest of the nation has modeled our sunshine laws since then.
Over the years, the legislature and a myriad of court rulings have steadily eroded the citizen access to record and public meetings that were established under Rockefeller’s 1967 Freedom of Information Act. In both the 2021 and 2023 legislative sessions, several bills were filed that sought to almost completely eliminate public access under FOIA. Most of those bills were defeated, some convincingly, but the steady loss of open government was clear to transparency advocates around the state.
FOIA’s endangerment became even clearer following the 2023 session when the Attorney General created a secret task force to “reform” FOIA. Transparency advocates knew we needed to act to protect our right to know—or we were going to lose it.
The anti-FOIA rumblings crescendoed this September when Governor Sarah Sanders called a special session seeking to enact legislation that would practically end citizen access to public documents. Access to these documents is essential to oversight of state decision making, contracting and rule-making.
A large and ideologically diverse coalition of citizens came to the Capitol and made it clear to legislators that the people of Arkansas simply wouldn’t stand quietly by while our ability to oversee state government was in jeopardy.
The bulk of that awful bill was defeated, but even then, we lost more of our access under FOIA. Worse yet, the Governor, key legislative leaders and the Attorney General made public statements indicating they “were just getting started.”
Those who were at the Capitol for that special session observed a kind of arrogance and hubris from those elected to represent us. This was unprecedented; members of the public were insulted by the Senate President, shushed by committee chairs and silenced when seeking to provide testimony on the far reaching effects of the proposed legislation.
In the midst of this gross example of bad government, something unique was conceived. People who’d been political enemies for decades stood together, united in opposition to government secrecy. Far left progressives stood side by side with the most extreme right activists to make it clear that the people of Arkansas have had enough. Many who witnessed that unusual unity have said it’s like nothing else they’ve ever observed.
A broad coalition of citizens concerned about the ongoing attacks on transparency came together and began having informal meetings to discuss how to protect our rights under FOIA. This led to joining together: the formation of a group known as Arkansas Citizens for Transparency.
The group has now produced a first draft of a constitutional amendment proposal that will “enshrine FOIA in the Arkansas Constitution.” Those drafting the proposal outlined their goals in a public letter introducing the draft.
The non-partisan, citizen led group is now organizing a series of public meetings seeking input on the draft. Once the final wording has consensus, the group will formally organize a ballot question committee and the process of ballot title approval and gathering the 90,704 signatures required to qualify for the 2024 general election ballot.
Our state motto is “Regnat Populus”—The People Rule. If the people are to rule, government cannot hide its decision making process from the people.
Transparency is often burdensome; sometimes it’s even expensive. But it is absolutely necessary for government of, by and for the people to survive.
We cannot allow those who seek a government of secrets to make their goals become the laws we’re forced to live under.