LINCOLN — The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services once calculated that it would cost $126,340 to turn over public records related to the Medicaid program.
It was an extreme example of what Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery called abuse of a law allowing government agencies to recoup the costs of responding to open records requests. Putting a stop to excessive and arbitrary fees is why he introduced Legislative Bill 363.
Lawmakers advanced the bill Monday to the second round of debate on a 35-1 vote. But not before rural senators won a concession in response to their concern that the bill would burden public agencies in smaller population counties.
The bill allows public officials to continue charging for the cost of photocopying records. But since officials already are paid a salary to keep public records, they should not charge more money to fulfill routine requests, Avery said.
“We were trying to make it possible for people to have access to these records in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost,” he said Monday.
As approved by the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, the bill would prevent public agencies from charging a staff fee for the first six hours required to fulfill a request. The agency could charge a service fee for any work done on the request beyond six hours.
The terms of the legislation were negotiated by the interested parties before the start of the session, Avery said. During a Feb. 6 public hearing, those who supported the bill included the League of Nebraska Municipalities and the Nebraska Association of County Officials.
During supporting testimony, Robert McEwen, an attorney with the Nebraska Appleseed Center, gave the extreme example cited Monday by Avery. While McEwen said the scope of the Medicaid request may have been “arguably broad,” the $126,000 fee quoted by the agency seemed “quite unreasonable.”
If the public agency already maintains the record on a website, officials will not be required to gather it, Avery said, unless the requesting party has no access to a computer.
During Monday's debate, several senators representing rural districts said they have heard from county assessors who argued that waiving six hours of staff time to fulfill a records request could amount to a financial burden.
Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill filed an amendment to allow public officials to begin charging fees after one hour of work on a request.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, a supporter of the bill, derided Larson and others for being more worried about public officials than the citizens whom the officials are paid to serve.
“You always kowtow to Daddy Warbucks, and Little Orphan Annie is left out in the cold,” he said.
After additional debate, Avery offered to draft a second-round amendment to allow fees to start after four hours of work, rather than six. Larson withdrew his amendment, and the bill advanced.
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