Re-posting today’s story:
By PAUL MONIES
A pending case before the Oklahoma Supreme Court about the disclosure of state employee birth dates has led to little enthusiasm at the Legislature to add employee exemptions to the Open Records Act.
Rep. Randy Terrill, R-Moore, sponsored legislation for the second year in a row to exempt the birth dates and employee identification numbers of public employees from the Open Records Act. His latest measure, House Bill 2097, did not make it out of a House committee.
Terrill’s legislative assistant said Wednesday a limit on introduced bills this year meant HB 2097 was not one of the eight bills Terrill pursued. Terrill tried and failed several times last year to amend the Open Records Act to make similar changes.
Other groups involved in the fight last year are taking a wait-and-see attitude on legislation until the Supreme Court rules, including the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and the Oklahoma Press Association. They were on opposite sides of the issue.
A spokesman for House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, said Steele had some transparency concerns about adding exemptions for public employee birth dates. Steele doesn’t expect other bills on the issue to come up this session, he said.
In February 2010, The Oklahoman made an open records request to the Office of Personnel Management for basic information, including name, salary, title, birth dates and employee identification numbers for all state employees.
- Related: One year later: Attorney General opinion on public employee DOBs still unresolved
- Related: Oklahoma County judge issues ruling in public employee DOB case
The newspaper made the request in an effort to check the backgrounds of public employees. Without a secondary identifier like a birth date, it’s almost impossible to distinguish between people with common names in court records or other public documents.
The request followed an opinion from former Attorney General Drew Edmondson that allowed public bodies to decide on a case-by-case basis if the disclosure of birth dates of public employees constituted a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The newspaper’s open records request set off protests and lawsuits from some state employees and public employee groups, who feared the release of their birth dates would lead to identity theft. Some in public safety positions feared retaliation by convicted criminals.
The Open Records Act has several exemptions to protect public employee privacy, including limits on the disclosure of Social Security numbers, home addresses and home telephone numbers.
The birth dates and home addresses of 2 million registered voters in Oklahoma are available for a fee from the state Election Board.
Not all state employees are registered voters.
The state’s Open Books website also has limited payroll information for employees of state agencies and higher education.
In January, the Supreme Court extended an order by Oklahoma County District Judge Bryan C. Dixon that stops several state agencies from disclosing the birth dates and employee identification numbers of public employees. That order is in effect while the case is pending before the Supreme Court.
Mike Minnis, attorney for The Oklahoman, said the court may order oral arguments or issue an opinion on the case. The time frame for those outcomes is unclear.
The newspaper’s case attracted support from other media and government transparency groups, including Griffin Television, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and FOI Oklahoma Inc. The Tulsa World filed its own records request for similar state employee information and intervened in a lawsuit brought by several employee associations.
Last year, The Oklahoman used birth dates to check the backgrounds of many candidates in November’s elections. Tax liens, bankruptcies, lawsuits and criminal charges were among the information uncovered.
Full disclosure: I signed an affidavit in support of The Oklahoman‘s lawsuit and I’m a board member for FOI Oklahoma Inc.
P.S. My birth date is 6/27/75.
From Saturday’s paper:
As part of the state budget agreement, Oklahoma motor vehicle records will now cost $25 apiece – the highest fee for such records in the nation. Insurance companies use the records to set rates.
BY PAUL MONIES
A budget plan to more than double the price of driving records gives Oklahoma a new distinction: it now charges more than any other state.
With the passage of Senate Bill 1556, motor vehicle records will cost $25, up from $10. An additional fee of $2.50 remains for online sales by NIC Inc., the company that operates the state’s website. The online charge was not raised.
The bill now goes to Gov. Brad Henry, but the increase was part of the budget agreement finalized last week between the governor and legislative leaders.
Charges for motor vehicle records vary widely nationwide, according to a compilation of rates by public records publisher BRB Publications Inc. Rhode Island charges $19.50. New Mexico provides copies of the records for free, although it does charge $4.95 if they are ordered online.
More than 20 states charge extra fees for online access to the records.
Michael Sankey, president of BRB Publications and author of several books on motor vehicle records, said a handful of states increase the fees on those records each year.
It’s a money-making deal for states because the actual costs for motor vehicle records are far lower than what most states charge, he said.
The higher Oklahoma fees mean the state could make more than $30 million a year selling motor vehicle records to insurance companies, data brokers and employment verification firms. A fiscal analysis of SB 1556 prepared by legislative staff shows the increase could add $12 million to the state’s general fund and $6 million to a revolving fund for the state Department of Public Safety.
In the past five years, Oklahoma has brought in about $13 million each year for selling those records, according to records.
Included on the records are names, birth dates, driver’s license numbers and recent driving histories. The type of information sold is governed by the federal Drivers Privacy Protection Act.
The act contains more than a dozen possible scenarios that allow numerous public and private organizations and individuals to obtain the records, but most of the buyers are insurance companies.
Jim Walker, a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance, said he heard earlier this year Oklahoma’s fee might be raised to $15. Walker said the company was “shocked” last week to see the fee raised to $25.
“This could ultimately translate into higher insurance rates,” Walker said.
Insurance companies use the driving history part of the records to set car insurance rates. Walker said Oklahoma’s higher fees could mean State Farm buys the records less frequently. That would give it less flexibility in setting rates for good drivers.
“If you’re a good driver, we don’t want to charge you the same as a bad driver,” Walker said.
UPDATE, 6/1/10: I went back and looked at Gov. Henry’s budget proposal from February and saw the following passage on Page 10:
Certified Copies of Driving Records
The State charges $10 to persons attaining a certified copy of a driver record. The Department of Public Safety forecasts that it will collect $10.6 million in FY-2011 at the current rate. This budget proposes doubling the fee for such copies to $20. This generates an additional $10.6 million in revenue for FY-2011.
My colleague Johnny Johnson has a wrap-up today of the most dangerous intersections worked by Oklahoma City police in 2009. For most Oklahoma City drivers, the top 10 locations won’t be much of a surprise. For example, I avoid the Quail Springs Mall area as much as I can, especially during the holiday season.
I plotted the top locations on a Google Map, which you can see by going to our Right to Know page.
My story about the Oklahoma rebates is here, but some data I requested from the Oklahoma Tax Commission came in too late for my deadline. I wanted to know whether the Cash for Clunkers rebates had much effect on the number of new vehicles titled by the commission. Here’s the month-by-month breakdown for January to October for 2008 and 2009:
I’m wary of drawing too many conclusions, but it looks like the number of new vehicles titled in Oklahoma did get a boost in the late summer months this year. It’s clear that new vehicle sales were pretty slow in the early part of this year. Overall, more than 8,700 vehicles in Oklahoma qualified for Cash for Clunkers rebates. Those sales were spread over the three months of the program, which ended in late August and spilled over into early September.
Paul Taylor, the chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said the Cash for Clunkers program probably helped the economy in the third quarter as states received extra tax revenue and showrooms stayed busy. It may also have some spillover effects into the fourth quarter as auto manufacturers, which had slashed production in the wake of sluggish sales, ramped up production on assembly lines to replace inventory.
The Clunkers program lit up the market. Auto showrooms went from almost empty to overflowing. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who takes an objective look at the Cash for Clunkers program can reach any conclusion other than it gave a dramatic boost to retail sales and manufacturing output,” Taylor said.
The results on the environmental front are a little more mixed. Sure, some true clunkers and gas guzzlers were taken off the road and crushed in salvage yards. But many of the new vehicles bought using the rebates were trucks, so it’s done little to change consumer habits. And gas prices are down from their record highs in 2008, so that tiny economical car doesn’t look as attractive as it once did when gasoline was topping $4/gallon.
–UPDATE: If you want to download the Oklahoma data yourself, just go here. It’s a pretty large Excel file of about 5MB.
–UPDATE: I just stumbled across this Daily Show clip from last night. Apparently, the demolition-derby constituency isn’t very happy with the whole Cash for Clunkers program.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|Crash for Clunkers|
Score one for openness in air safety data.
It looks like new Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood flexed his muscle, according to the Washington Post:
“I think all of this information ought to be made public, and I think that you’ll soon be reading about the fact that we’re going to, you know, make this information as public as anybody wants it,” LaHood said in an interview for The Washington Post’s “New Voices of Power” series. “The people should have access to this kind of information.
“The whole thing about the bird strike issue is it doesn’t really comport with the president’s idea of transparency,” the secretary said. “I mean, here they just released all of these CIA files regarding interrogation, and . . . the optic of us trying to tell people they can’t have information about birds flying around airports, I don’t think that really quite comports with the policies of the administration. . . . It’s something that somebody wanted to put out there to get a reaction. We got the reaction, and now we’re going to bring it to conclusion.”
Also, public comments on the proposed regulatory rule were overwhelmingly opposed to the FAA’s action.
Apparently, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t think very highly of the public.
That’s the impression I get after seeing this story in USA Today about the FAA wanting to stop the release of data on bird strikes and aircraft.
From the FAA’s justification, published in the Federal Register:
The complexity of the information warrants care with its interpretation; releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports/airlines. Requests for data within the FAA National Wildlife Strike Database have typically been for specific data fields, individual airports or detailed portions of the database. Responses from the FAA have addressed each request individually and adequately. Airports voluntarily report bird strike data to understand their wildlife hazards better and to streamline allocating wildlife mitigation funding. Inaccurate portrayals of airports and airlines could have a negative impact on their participation in reporting bird strikes. It is the willingness of airports to participate, to better understand, and to better address their unique set of wildlife hazards that highlights why voluntary reporting works.
[Translation: "This is complex stuff, and the general public is too stupid to figure it out. Also, we're afraid aviation professionals will be less likely to report wildlife strikes if they know the information will be released."]
As the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, James Hall, told the Associated Press:
To have the government actually chill public access to safety information is a step backward. Public awareness is an essential part of any strong safety program.
The FAA proposal comes on the heels of the crash-landing of US Airways Flight 1549, which landed in New York’s Hudson River in January after striking a flock of geese. The plane’s captain, Chesley Sullenberger, was lauded as a hero worldwide for his quick action in the accident, which resulted in no injuries or deaths.
Here in Oklahoma, we used the data, the National Wildlife Strike Database, to report on a deadly small plane crash last year in Oklahoma City. Witnesses reported that the plane hit some birds as it was flying near Lake Overholser.
What’s interesting about the FAA’s proposal is that it appears to fly in the face of President Obama’s declaration of openness in the federal government. Maybe the FAA’s administrators haven’t received the memo yet?
Also, the FAA’s justification seems a little suspect, especially since other countries require this type of information to be collected. Also, the U.S. airline industry appears to be fine with mandatory collection of this information. From a recent safety newsletter:
Sandy Wright of the USDA reported that birdstrikes in the US continue to increase due to bird population increases, bird adaptation to urban living, quieter aircraft engines and other causes. There is currently no FAA metric for ascertaining if risk is being mitigated. It was felt that mandatory reporting of strikes would increase the usefulness of the database. During discussion Mont Smith of the Air Transport Association (ATA) stated that the ATA would no longer oppose mandatory reporting of birdstrikes. Later, in a separate conversation, Smith said that, regarding the implementation of mandatory reporting of birdstrikes, the ATA would be “…taking it to Washington and getting the job done”.
It’s not too late to comment on the FAA proposal, either. You have until April 20 to have your say.
Following on from Sunday’s story on potholes, we’ve posted an online database and map of more than 3,300 pothole repair requests received by Oklahoma City in 2008. The Oklahoman filed an Open Records request to see the complaints, which were taken from the city’s Pothole Hot Line (631-1111). You can search by month or address for potholes called in by your neighbors.
You can find a link to the database on our Right to Know page under the “Maps” section. Also, don’t forget to check out an online video packaged with the story of a pothole repair ridealong with Oklahoma City street maintenance workers.
The latest “wish list” of infrastructure projects from mayors across the country was released over the weekend, and 10 Oklahoma mayors have requested $1.7 billion in funds from the economic stimulus package making its way through Congress.
You can read today’s story here.
Also, we compiled more than 220 projects requested in Oklahoma into a database that’s on the Your Right to Know page. You’ll find the link under “Data.”
(I blogged about an earlier version of the list last week.)
The City of Oklahoma City rolled out a new Web page this week that allows you track traffic accidents worked by Oklahoma City police in real time. The page uses Microsoft’s Virtual Earth to map out both injury accidents and non-injury accidents across the city.
On a related note, a few smaller police departments in the state have contracted with a third-party vendor to put their crime maps on the Web:
If you drive much in rural Oklahoma, you probably pass dangerous spots every day where you know accidents happen.
Now, thanks to the folks at the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, you can check up on fatal traffic accidents in Oklahoma and across the nation. The center’s new Web site, www.saferoadmaps.org, lets you search the federal government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System data and combines it with a map function to help you visualize where those wrecks happen.
To get started, go the tutorial page and watch the movies demonstrating the site. You can search by state, Congressional district, or type in an address and see how many fatal accidents happened near there. You can also filter the results to see the difference between urban and rural accident rates and whether or not alcohol was involved.
The site has data from 2006, the latest year available.