Williams, Stumbo: Expand Legislative Authority

by Rick Howlett on February 25, 2009

From Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh

The top two leaders of the Kentucky General Assembly want to expand the legislature’s authority to investigate state agencies. But as Kentucky Public Radio’s Tony McVeigh reports, the proposal is raising the eyebrows of some agency leaders and lawmakers who say they’re concerned about transparency.

The Kentucky General Assembly already has a Program Review and Investigations committee, a Government Contract Review committee and a Capital Projects and Bond Oversight committee. There are also oversight committees on education assessment and accountability, Medicaid and administrative regulations. But Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo believe lawmakers need more authority to investigate executive branch expenditures of taxpayer dollars. And they have filed identical bills that would create the General Assembly Accountability and Review Division, or GAARD.

Senator Williams:
“Those people who have been in the General Assembly for quite a while felt like that this investigatory responsibility is inherent in the legislature and that we ought to exercise it very judiciously, but have an entity ready to do that, if it was needed.”

GAARD would be an extension of the Legislative Research Commission, which is made up of the leaders from the two chambers. It would be co-chaired by President Williams and Speaker Stumbo.

“We have a constitutional responsibility to make sure the taxpayers’ money is spent wisely. And it’s always been a problem getting correct information from the agencies. All we’re asking for is the truth. If they provide us with the truth, nobody has any problem,” Stumbo said.

But the State Auditor already has the power to investigate executive branch agencies and forward evidence of alleged wrongdoing to the attorney general. Wouldn’t this new investigative arm usurp the Auditor’s authority?

“No, no, all we’re saying is, we’ll be able to call upon the Auditor and call upon the Attorney General if we find areas that they will need to look at specifically and focus on,” Stumbo said.

But State Auditor Crit Luallen worries GAARD would be an unnecessary duplication of her office’s work. Attorney General Jack Conway also has concerns.

“As someone who enforces the open records and open meetings laws I have to be supportive of transparency in government. And this legislation attempts to create a legislative investigative agency that’s not subject to any type of open records,” Conway said.

Indeed, as the bills are written, GAARD could audit and investigate any public agency. And agencies must promptly respond to requests for records and witnesses. But other than an annual report, all records gathered by the investigative agency and the reports it makes would be confidential unless released by the Legislative Research Commission. That worries Lexington Senator Kathy Stein.

“I believe it takes a lot of documents, puts them behind a closed door with a big old padlock on it,” said Stein.

But Senate President David Williams says the fears over secrecy are unfounded. He says GAARD will only be compiling existing documents, not creating new documents.

“Any documents that we obtain will be documents that are obtained for another agency and will be subject to the open records law,” Williams said.

Louisville Rep. Jim Wayne also has concerns about the legislation, especially questions over secrecy, but he believes the bills do have merit.

“The legislature does have a position in the state where it should be investigating more of the executive branch functions,” Wayne said. “We’re not doing that properly because we don’t have the staff and because secondly, we don’t have subpoena power when we’re not in session.”

Governor Beshear will have to decide whether or not to sign the legislation if it passes the session. He has no clear feelings yet on GAARD. The governor’s been busy with the federal stimulus package and hasn’t studied the proposal.

“We’re starting now to review all of the other bills that are in, including the bills you’ve mentioned. And after I do a thorough review of those, I’m sure we’ll be sitting down with the sponsors and talking about them to see where we might go, if anywhere,” Beshear said.

Right now, the bills are still awaiting action in the House and Senate State Government committees.

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