More often than not, it is the fine print in the work of lawmakers that threatens government transparency the most.
Assaults on the public’s right to know are generally not found in bill captions or in what representatives and senators call their respective bills.
No one sponsors a piece of legislation and calls it Stripping Away the Public’s Right to Know.
In fact, the greatest dangers are often found not in the main body of a bill, but in the amendment attached to it, the fine print.
It is common for amendments to be tacked on to bills at the last minute, coming out of nowhere. The vast majority of amendments are relatively benign. Others, unfortunately, are not.
Lawmakers have learned over the course of time that amendments can easily fly under the radar and give them the opportunity to make sweeping changes to the law with little to no public scrutiny.
Amendments are often cutouts from failed bills that never make it out of committee.
Instead of scuttling some piece of failed, often controversial, legislation, lawmakers just tuck it away in their hip pocket, ready to tack it on to a popular or less controversial bill hoping that either no one will be paying attention, or that the bill they tacked it on to will be strong enough or popular enough to outweigh concerns over the amendment.
That kind of lawmaking is a disservice to the people of Georgia and can be an assault on the public’s right to know. To be clear, there is nothing illegal about amending a bill. But, as is often the case, doing things legally and doing them in the right way are not exactly the same thing.
It is one thing to amend a bill to make it better, to further define it, limit its scope or prevent some unintended consequences but it is quite another thing to use a bill for duck and cover for some provision sometimes completely unrelated to the bill itself.
In short, the amendment process can just be downright sneaky and sometimes nefarious.
Essentially, the amendment process ends up being just a way to circumvent the legislative process and that is bad governance. Unfortunately, sometimes lawmakers do not fully read the bills they are voting on, much less the amendments to those bills.
Tacking an amendment at the last minute for the sole purpose of passing some controversial or ill-conceived measure that had no chance of making it on its own is just dishonest and compromises the integrity of the entire legislative process.
Jim Zachary is the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and CNHI’s Director of Newsroom Training and Development.