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CLOSING THE BOOKS

As government bureaucracies go, the Arizona State Legislature is usually an open book. You want public records? Just ask.

Unless you're a legislator.
Eleanor Schorr, a Tucson Democrat in the Arizona House, is embroiled with House Speaker Jane Hull, a Phoenix Republican, over access to public information that even lowly reporters routinely are able to get.

On August 16, Schorr strolled over to the House accounting office and requested details of how the House of Representatives doles out money to itself. She wanted to know how much has been spent this year on salaries, travel expenses and per diem fees for House members and their staff.

By law, these are public records. Schorr says she was shocked when told by a clerk that she couldn't see the public records until she got permission from either Hull or House chief of staff Rick Collins.

Permission? For public records? The feisty Schorr isn't the type to accept such nonsense.

On August 19, Schorr met with Collins. To her dismay, she says, Collins told her he'd first have to put the request in writing to Hull.

On August 22, Collins told her that Speaker Hull had "refused" Schorr's request. As Schorr recalls, Collins explained that Hull wanted to discuss the request with her before records were released.

This infuriated Schorr. "No one should have to get permission to see public records," says Schorr, pointing out that the budget figures are by law open to any member of the public. "There's such a thing as open government and free and unfettered access to House records."

Collins insists that neither he nor Hull has refused "access" to the records.

"She hasn't been denied access. They've always been available," he says. But in the next breath, Collins admits that Hull wrote "refused" on his memo detailing Schorr's request for the budget information. Doesn't the word "refused" mean that Schorr was denied access?

"I don't know what that means. I can't get into the speaker's head," Collins says. (Neither can New Times. Hull didn't return telephone calls.)

Collins says the entire matter could be settled if Schorr would just "talk to" Hull.

"The point is," says Schorr, "I shouldn't have to get permission."
By early this week, no face-to-face encounter had occurred. But Schorr and Hull have launched missives at each other.

On September 9, Schorr wrote to Hull: "A system that makes it necessary for a House member to receive prior permission from you or your chief of staff to review House records is improper."

Hull fired back on September 13: "If, as I had requested through Mr. Collins, I'd had the opportunity to meet with you, we could have discussed my position. . . . For the record, I want to make it clear that my actions have nothing to do with the issue of public records. In fact, our personnel records have been open and reviewed on a regular basis by several reporters."

Does Hull mean that all House members will be able to immediately see budget figures without first asking her permission? If so, says Schorr, "I'm glad to hear that the public records are now open to anyone who wants to see them."

Then she wryly adds: "I would like to hear her announce this on the floor of the House."

But Schorr still wonders: If Hull's refusal has nothing to do with public records, what does it have to do with?

Maybe it has to do with the reason for Schorr's request in the first place. House members have no idea how the legislature's $7 million budget is spent, says Schorr, because the legislature is run like an "autocracy."

"We vote a sum to ourselves each year, but after that how it's spent is very murky," she says. "I don't think as a body we should be kept ignorant of how things are spent and we should have some say in how things are spent." Schorr's particular beef is that the House never seems to have enough dollars to pay independent experts to help legislators draft difficult laws. Lobbyists don't charge for their time; they wind up "helping" legislators write laws.

"The system thrusts legislators into the arms of lobbyists," Schorr says. "We need to know what the breakdown of funds is, how we're spending money. People on both sides see problems with how the House is run."--

"No one should have to get permission to see public records."

EVIL'S ORDINARY FACE ... v9-18-91

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Terry Greene