Tuesday 12 December 2017

Open Government (Transparency) (5)

On January 5, 2017, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require congressional approval on all major regulations.  Any major regulation that does not get the approval of Congress and the President after 90 days will effectively die. This is just one of the many “regulatory reform” bills currently before the U.S. Congress. The package of reform bills, taken together, could seriously undermine the current regulatory process – leaving the public and the environment less protected, while opening the doors for the political system to be subject to more abuse by those with political and economic power. Another reform bill – the Midnight Rules Relief Act – also passed the House in the first week of January.  If enacted, this bill would enable Congress to swiftly undo groups of finalized regulations without any consideration for the merits of each regulation.  Any group of regulations passed during the last few months in office by a president will be subject to this law. GOP leaders said that their top targets will be President Obama’s rule to decrease the environmental impact of coal mining on nearby streams and his rule to reduce methane emissions. The most sweeping regulatory reform bill – the Regulatory Accountability Act of 2017 – will have a dramatic impact on the way federal agencies implement new regulations.  This omnibus bill imposes more than 60 new analytical requirements for agencies that are already subject to a robust system of vetting for every new regulation.  The bill, among…
On February 10, 2016, Waterkeepers Chesapeake Executive Director Betsy Nicholas testified before the Maryland General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee in support of anti-SLAPP legislation. A SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuit is a specific kind of legal proceeding that is generally filed to intimidate or silence critics, with little intention to be won on the merits. For whistleblowers or others who might be working in the public interest, such lawsuits come with burdensome legal fees, something that House Bill 263 could possibly remedy. The bill is being sponsored by Delegate Samuel Rosenberg of Baltimore. In a story for the Daily Record, legal affairs writer Steve Lash said that the bill would remove the requirement that "groups seeking to dismiss such litigation prove they had been filed 'in bad faith' and were 'intended to inhibit' their free-expression rights."  Joining the Waterkeepers Chesapeake coalition were the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association (MDDA), and the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA). Nicholas said that the bill will enable environmental groups to speak out against polluters without fear of costly, meritless litigation designed only to keep them quiet.  Below is Nicholas' submitted tesimony to the committee:  WATERKEEPERS® Chesapeake is a coalition of nineteen independent programs working to make the waters of the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays swimmable and fishable. Waterkeepers Chesapeake amplifies the voices of each Waterkeeper and mobilizes these organizations to fight pollution and champion clean water. The members of Waterkeepers Chesapeake work locally, using grassroots action and advocacy to protect…
Environmental advocates have been working to update Maryland's 45-year old Public Information Act through state legislation ("Senate OKs rewrite of public information law," March 24). There is certainly plenty of room for improvement -- Maryland received an "F" in government transparency from the State Integrity Project. The new legislation creates better oversight, tightens timelines to respond to public information requests and requires proper justification for denials.   Clean water and clean air advocates have been stymied when requesting information from state or local governments -- but we're not the only ones.   I testified in support of this legislation alongside newspaper editors, government watchdog groups, social justice organizations and private citizens. The only organizations that testified publicly in opposition to the bill were the Maryland Farm Bureau and the Maryland Grain Producers. Why do they oppose common sense reforms to Maryland's public information law?   The agriculture industry -- the largest polluter to the Chesapeake Bay -- receives special treatment under existing law. For instance, information about state-required pollution plans for many farms are kept secret, hidden from Maryland taxpayers, along with enforcement records for these farms. State governments invest millions of dollars to reduce pollution from farms and we deserve some level of accountability to ensure that funding is being well spent. Unfortunately, the powerful corporate agriculture lobby was successfully able to strip any provisions relating to agricultural transparency out of the legislation.   The amended legislation moving through the General Assembly is still critically important because it will…