House Finance Chairman Vernon Sykes Retracts Suggestion for Private Meetings on Budget

House finance Chairman Vernon Sykes Retracts Suggestion for Private Meetings on Budget

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A key House lawmaker rescinded his call for private meetings between Democratic subcommittee chairs and Senate Republicans after a reporter asked if the talks could violate the state’s open meetings law.

House Finance Chairman Vernon Sykes, an Akron Democrat, on Tuesday pulled the plug on the idea of having the joint meetings.

“I’m very concerned we do everything we can to present a balanced budget,” Sykes said. “I don’t want any distractions from our main objective.”

He said he believed the sessions that he suggested between House and Senate members in a May 21 memo would not violate Ohio law, but didn’t want to leave the perception that business was being done behind closed doors.

“Just the mere fact that you are now raising it means maybe we shouldn’t do it,” he said Tuesday.

In Thursday’s memo sent to House Democratic subcommittee chairs, Sykes asked that the members as well as staffers sit down for a private talk with Republican Senate counterparts who head up working groups combing the next state budget for cuts. Senate Republicans are expected to unveil a new budget proposal Thursday or Friday that chops about $1 billion from the $56 billion state budget that passed the House on April 29.

“The idea was for us to be able to answer questions about what we did and explain our rationale for why we did things,” Sykes said.

Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action, a public watchdog group, said the joint meetings Sykes called for would have violated the state law.

“Clearly, the kind of structure they were talking about would violate open records and meetings laws, but the bigger issue here is how many times we don’t get the information that we should get as the public,” Turcer said.

Sykes, who sponsored the state’s open meetings legislation, said he was “in no way trying to get around the law.”

“Instead, we will just leave it to individuals to go and do that if they so desire,” Sykes said.

Later, Keary McCarthy, spokesman for House Speaker Armond Budish, noted that Democrats hadn’t found any takers among Senate Republicans thus far.

Talks between key House and Senate members are normally done during the final stage of the state budget process when a joint House-Senate conference committee is named by leaders to hash out differences between the budgets passed by the two chambers. The meetings are open to the public.

Ohio’s constitution requires that proceedings of both Houses be public except in cases where two-thirds of those present believe secrecy is required.

The caucus meetings of House or Senate members of the same party are exempt from the Ohio’s open meetings law. However, prearranged discussions of public business of state legislative committees are supposed to be open to the public.

“So often we don’t know happened in the discussion leading up to the final decisions because of all of the caucusing that goes on,” said Turcer. “We need a process that is more open, not less open.”

Aaron Marshall, Plain Dealer Columbus Bureau, May 27, 2009, 7:00 AM