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Senate GOP leaders tout bills they say would increase transparency

Marking the start of a week celebrating open government, Senate Republican leaders on March 16 highlighted what they called Arizona's leadership on transparency and touted legislation they said would provide the public greater access.

Sen. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, the majority leader, noted that Arizona is one of only a few states that broadcast legislative hearings online, calling it just one example of state government's commitment to openness.

"Arizona stands alone in the Western states around us," Gray said. "We've done things other states just haven't done."

Gray and Sen. Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, the majority whip, spoke at a news conference highlighting Sunshine Week, a national initiative promoting open government and freedom of information.

They touted several bills they said would enhance openness, including legislation to require all public bodies to make notices of open meetings available on the Internet for a year.

"We think providing transparency for taxpayers is a priority for this Republican caucus," Gorman said.

However, Republican legislation to require cities and towns to establish searchable online databases of all receipts and expenditures drew criticism from Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. He said the provisions of SB 1142, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, are unnecessary and would be too expensive to implement.

"One of the things about local government is that we are very transparent about how we do business," he said in a telephone interview. "Compared to sometimes the way the Legislature does everything, we are very, very open."

Some of the bills the GOP leaders touted didn't deal specifically with public access to government records or proceedings, including SB 1466, authored by Gorman, which would establish a council to provide recommendations on how to maximize government efficiency and implement government privatization.

S1348, sponsored by Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, is aimed at preventing people from providing false information to public officials or boards or commissions.

Sen. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, questioned the Republican leadership's commitment to transparency, saying too much discussion about the state budget is occurring in small groups behind closed doors.

"I'd feel a lot more comfortable if the meetings that took place in preparation of the budget were more public," she said in a telephone interview.

David Cuillier, a University of Arizona assistant professor of journalism and national Freedom of Information chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, said the state has a ways to go before it can celebrate leadership in open government. His research suggests that more than half of government bodies around the state don't comply with Arizona's public records law, which says that records must be open to inspection by any person at any time during office hours.

"Arizona doesn't rank very well compared to most other states," he said. "I think it could be a lot better."

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