Bills Would Lower Copy Fees, Require Internet Posting of Public Reports
TRENTON – Two bills sponsored by Senators Loretta Weinberg and Jeff Van Drew to increase government transparency and access in New Jersey by reducing copy fees for open public records requests and other government documents and requiring public reports and publications produced by the State be made available primarily on the Internet were approved by the Senate yesterday.
“Without the opportunity for public scrutiny, we’ve seen time and time again that government runs amok,” said Senator Weinberg, D-Bergen, and a long-time advocate for more openness in New Jersey government. “The lack of transparency and openness breeds corruption, waste, fraud and abuse of the taxpayer’s trust in their elected officials. These bills would make it a little easier for taxpayers to get information regarding their government and monitor public spending.”
“It simply defies reason that in the 21st Century, government publications and agency reports have not transitioned to the Internet,” said Senator Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland and Atlantic, who has been pushing for the State to modernize publication guidelines for several years. “We can achieve cost savings, reduce our impact on the environment, and create greater access to these publications by making them primarily available on the World Wide Web. This is an idea whose time has come, and will allow taxpayers to access government publications with a click of the mouse.”
The first bill in the package, S-1212, sponsored by Senator Weinberg, would decrease the fees set for copies of documents from government entities. The bill would reduce copy fees to five cents per page of documents printed on letter-sized paper, and seven cents per page of documents printed on legal-sized paper. The new fees would represent a decrease, as the original statute authorized government entities to charge as much as 75 cents per page for all documents.
The bill is in response to an Appellate Court decision in Smith v. Hudson County Register which urged the Legislature to adopt a flat rate for copying fees under OPRA. The bill was approved by the Senate by a vote of 38-0, receiving final legislative approval, and now heads to the Governor to be signed into law.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen incidents in which public records custodians have used vague copy-fee guidelines under the current law to undercut the intent open public records,” said Senator Weinberg. “Regardless, whether it’s an intentional or unintentional stumbling block for taxpayer-watchdogs to receive copies of public records, the current copy fee simply does not reflect the actual cost to government of producing records requests. Copy fees shouldn’t be used as revenue generators for local or county governments or State agencies, but should be set at a reasonable level to allow everyone to access the work product of their elected representatives.”
The second bill in the package, S-1217, sponsored by Senators Weinberg and Van Drew, would require that reports and publications produced by State Commissions, authorities and agencies, which are intended to be submitted to the Governor, the Legislature or the public would be made available on the Internet, as opposed to providing printed copies. Individuals without access to the Internet would still be permitted to request a printed copy. Under the bill, six paper copies of all State reports and publications would be made for archival purposes at the State Library, and the report originator would be required to make the State Librarian aware that a report is available on the Internet.
“Allowing taxpayers easier access to government reports and publications via the Internet makes sense,” said Senator Weinberg. “We produce these documents to do the people’s business, and it stands to reason that the people should be able to access them over the World Wide Web. Hopefully, by giving the taxpayers an easier avenue of access to government reports and publications, we can encourage greater interest in the government process.”
“While many of these reports act as a springboard to inspire new laws and regulations to benefit the people of New Jersey, the fact remains that a lot of these publications go unread,” said Senator Van Drew. “Rather than pay to produce hundreds, if not thousands, of glossy brochures, pamphlets and booklets each year to educate lawmakers and policymakers about a given topic, we should let these elected leaders seek out the information they’re interested in and can put to use in representing their constituents, and work from there. It’s far more cost effective to use the Internet as a distribution tool for these reports and publications, and let people review the reports that they can put to good use.”
The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate. It is still pending consideration by the Assembly before going to the Governor’s desk.