An effort to put more teeth in Iowa’s “sunshine” laws is on Governor Branstad’s “must-do” list for legislators. “We feel strongly that’s something that’s needed,” Branstad says. “We need an enforcement mechanism for the open meetings/open records law. They should not adjourn without doing that.”

The Republican-led House voted Tuesday to accept much of what the Democratically-led Senate wants in order to more strictly enforce Iowa’s open meetings and open records laws. Representative Vicki Lensing, a Democrat from Iowa City, says she’s heard plenty of complaints about local governments that haven’t followed the law.

“We’ve had closed meetings,” Lensing says. “We’ve had members of the public not have access to documents.” Enforcement of the law has been scattered across state government, from the ethics board to the attorney general’s office. The bill creates a new state agency to investigate complaints, set standards and educate the public about openness and accountability in local government.

Representative Dave Jacoby, a Democrat from Coralville, voted against the bill because it doesn’t apply to the legislature, too. “I like this bill…but it doesn’t go far enough,” Jacoby says. Backers say they wouldn’t be able to get the bill through the House or Senate if the legislature’s partisan meetings were subject to the bill’s new requirements.

House Republicans originally objected to the cost of creating a new board, but the bill is a high priority for the governor and it passed by a wide margin. The bill goes back to the Senate for consideration of Tuesday’s House action.