Illinois Considers Transparency Rollback


Lawmakers in Illinois are considering a measure that would make it more difficult for the public to access government information or recover legal fees if the government denies a records request. The latest move to make it harder to access government information follows a House vote in mid-November to override Governor Quinn’s veto of another measure that would have made it harder to access information through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The fact that another move to block transparency comes so soon after that vote underlines what looks like a concerted effort on the part of state legislators to make government more opaque in Illinois.

According to Illinois Public Radio, the new bill would make it harder to recover legal fees on government records requests if the government wrongly denies those requests. It would also make government information generally harder to access. The bill is sponsored by a Democratic legislator.

The other measure, which was vetoed in November, would give government agencies more time to respond to FOIA requests and charge them up to $100 per request to send documents. Opponents of that bill said the $100 price tag was too high for low-income individuals. That bill faced little opposition in the statehouse and made it to the Governor’s desk. So far, only the House has voted to override the veto , a vote which passed 77-36.

The issue of fees for documents is not new in state government. Government has seen a ramp up in FOIA requests in recent years, as pressure for open government grows alongside general distrust of public institutions. Several states have floated different fee arrangements for filling the requests, citing the time and resources that go into responding. For Illinois specifically, this is not the first time the statehouse has gone after FOIA filers. As CivSource previously reported, in 2011 the legislature passed and the Governor signed a measure aimed at frequent FOIA filers, which allowed for a slower response time on FOIA requests that originate from the same filer multiple times in the same month, even if the requests were different each time.

Under the terms of the new law, individuals and organizations that file multiple FOIA requests per month will now be known as, “recurrent requesters.” Once an individual or organization receives this label, government agencies now have 21 days to respond to the request and an as yet undefined, “reasonable period” to provide the information. Agencies will also be allowed to charge for the administrative costs associated with providing the information. The new law went into effect immediately.

Government agencies can apply the recurrent requester label to any individual or organization that makes more than 7 FOIA requests in a given week or more than 15 per month. Before the new law, government agencies had to respond to requests within 7-14 days and did not charge for requested information.

At the time, we noted the passage of the bill marked a shift in Governor Quinn’s position on transparency as he had been a proponent for opening government since 2009. Since then, transparency efforts have seen mixed success with the Governor attempting to compel more regular updates to the state’s open data portal, while bristling at other transparency bills like one in 2012 which pushed to make corporate tax incentives public.