Trying to carve out open-government exemptions for favored constituencies seems to have become something of a latter-day tradition in the Georgia General Assembly. It's a victory for citizens, taxpayers and fundamental civic principles whenever one of these efforts bites the dust.
Chalk up one such victory -- at least a momentary one -- from Tuesday's session, when a bill to redact information about private contractors involved in government projects was tabled for the rest of the current session. House Bill 796 would have kept confidential the payroll and personnel records of firms contracted for a "public building project." But it didn't stop there; the bill would provide the same shield for all subcontractors on the project.
The problems with such a bill are obvious. Not just routine government contracts with private firms, but also the so-called "public-private partnerships," so beneficial to so many communities (especially this one), are still accountable to taxpayers for how our money is being spent and who the ultimate beneficiaries will be.
This bill would have denied public access to information such as safety records, salary and disciplinary records and worker training of contractors and subcontractors on public projects. (Interesting how often the "public" part of such transactions gets short shrift when constituent politics is involved.)
Think of the different kinds of business with which government signs contracts for services. In addition to construction projects, private firms bid for contracts to manage public facilities, provide food services or transportation -- a wide range of activities that directly affect public health, public safety and public expense.
One of the bill's sponsors said its purpose was to protect business from "frivolous" open records searches, specifically by competitors, and to protect private accounts. Fair enough, but increased transparency needs to be one of the conditions of doing business on the taxpayers' dime. Information that might not be public business if Company A contracted for services with Company B is very much public business if either of the parties is a government entity.
This one might resurface, either in special session this summer or next year. If reason prevails, we should see the same outcome.
The 'Slowpoke' bill
State Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, isn't head of the Georgia State Patrol any more. But he hasn't forgotten something he's surely seen way too much of on the state's roads -- the clueless doofus plodding along in what some of us still wistfully think of as the "passing" lane.
Hitchens wants to make such obstruction a misdemeanor, and he obviously struck a nerve with his colleagues: The bill passed the House 162-9.
One suggestion: If the offender is yammering on a cell phone, make it a felony.