Some librarian listservs and discussion groups buzzed recently about a new bill in the Ohio state legislature that could threaten the flow of digital information from state agencies, including publicly owned libraries. The bill is drawn from model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC; http://www.alec.org), a conservative, public and private sector membership group that includes 2,400 state legislators. Further investigation indicated that the legislation has had little success outside of Ohio.
Introduced into the Ohio legislature this year as H.B. 145, the Electronic Government Services Act prohibits state and local government agencies from offering electronic commerce services, which can include information, if such offerings would compete with those of two or more private sector firms operating in the state. To acquire exemption from the provision, state and local agencies would have to go through formal hearings, provide extensive documentation, gather special board approval, produce annual reports, etc. The law allows any private firm to sue for remedy if a state agency competes with it.
The same legislation was proposed in 2002 as H.B. 482, but failed. This year's version of the bill eliminates the state legislature itself and state courts from such restrictions, two agencies about which controversy circulated last year.
As H.B. 145, the Electronic Government Services Act faced difficulties in committee, but was merged into H.B. 95, the state's Budget bill, by a floor vote. Containing literally thousands of pages and measuring over 16 MB, the Budget bill merges individual pieces of legislation with state agency appropriations and is referred to by some watchers as the "Christmas Tree" bill. It has passed the Ohio General Assembly and now gone to the Senate where it is expected to pass some time in the second week of June. The Senate may or may not extract the Electronic Government Services Act portion and remove or revise it.
The primary sponsor for the original bill in Ohio was Stephen Buehrer, Republican Assemblyman from District 74, Assistant Majority Floor Leader, and state co-chair for ALEC. All ALEC task forces have co-chairs from the private sector (companies and organizations) and the public sector (state legislators). Morgan Long, director of the Task Force for Telecommunications and Information Technology, which drafted the model legislation, said that ALEC has some 1200 model bills in total.
In 2003, the Electronic Government Services Act has been introduced in five states: Ohio, Connecticut, Mississippi, Virginia, and Massachusetts. Last year, it was introduced in seven states: Ohio, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. None of the states-this year or last-has yet passed the legislation, though Ohio and Mississippi have had House passage.
Long decried the controversy about the bill as "a lot of demagoguery," maintaining that the bill only sought to insure "open government by making sure taxpayers know why money is being spent and to hold [state government agencies] accountable." As for loss of information flow, she pointed to freedom of information laws as protection of information services.
Ohio is a very "Webbed up" state. The State Library's Web site carries contact listings for 156 state and related agencies of which 128 include e-mail addresses, many of them tagged webmaster@... The state library provides T1 line connections to public libraries throughout the state, connections over which it delivers data it has licensed for citizen usage. At this point, state library staff members are scratching their heads over whether this service would face a challenge if the new law passes.
One rumor that arose during my investigation concerned the role one Ohio-based firm might be playing in this legislative controversy. A representative of Dayton, Ohio-based LexisNexis informed me that LexisNexis has not supported the bill and recognizes the negative feelings of many of its users toward the proposed legislation.
For a link to the original bill, H.B. 145, go to http://www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=125_HB_145;
for the budget bill, http://www.legislature.state.oh.us/bills.cfm?ID=125_HB_95;
and for a legislative analysis of the original bill, http://lsc.state.oh.us/analyses/anh125.nsf/All%20House%20Bills%20and%20Resolutions/b62.