Taxpayers in every state should know where their tax dollars are going. By being transparent, state governments allow citizens to monitor publicly funded programs and organizations. In Nebraska, this ideal is currently in jeopardy as a legislative bill seeks to rid the state of some transparency in public power providers.
The Nebraska legislature is currently in the process of reviewing a bill, LB16, which would allow the state to withhold certain information about energy infrastructure and public power providers. The information the bill would allow to be concealed from the public includes details about physical and cyber assets like maps, records, data and equipment relating to city infrastructure, such as buildings and powerlines, as well as the identities of those who oversee these assets. This amendment posits that the disclosure of this information would pose a threat to national security and public safety.
If LB16 passes, information about energy infrastructure would be added to the list of things that can currently be kept private by the state. The current 20 items relate mostly to the personal information of citizens, and this bill would be the first directly related to publicly funded programs. While this bill is modeled after a similar one that has already been passed on the federal level, because of its lack of necessity on a local level, it would serve more to keep information from the public than it would to protect security. This would be a major shift away from transparency, which is critical to maintaining the relationship between governments and their citizens, and would set a precedent that the state government can unnecessarily withhold information from the public.
Unlike current public disclosure restrictions, LB16 doesn’t protect personal information of Nebraska’s residents. Rather, the bill would give the state the power to withhold information about publicly funded power providers like the Nebraska Public Power District and Lincoln Electric System, which maintain most of the state’s energy and power infrastructure. If this amendment passes, these groups would have less accountability to the taxpayers who fund them.
In any relationship, transparency and honesty encourage cooperation. This is likewise true of governments and their citizens. Elected officials can build trust with their residents by being open and clear. When governing bodies aren’t clear with how money is spent, transparency is completely lost.
Government only works when citizens understand what is going on. As such, information should only be kept from the public if allowing such information to be public would either jeopardize public safety or violate individual rights. Withholding information about energy infrastructure and public power does not protect safety or individual liberty. Rather, it keeps information that helps residents know how publicly funded organizations are being run.
While LB16 is quite a bit longer than a similar bill from 2017, which ultimately failed to pass, there’s still not a clear definition of what information the bill would allow to be withheld. For example, section 9.a.i of the amendmentwould allow information that relates to details about the production, generation, transportation, transmission or distribution of energy to be kept from citizens. This seems like it would include almost the entirety of what public power providers do, making it possible for the state to keep all of these records unavailable to citizens.
LB16 isn’t just vague and bad for governmental transparency, it’s also unnecessary. Many supporters of the similar 2017 bill admitted the idea was simply based on new regulations from the federal government. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission updated their regulations on keeping critical infrastructure private in 2016. These updates are necessary on the national level, as the federal government oversees more important energy and power infrastructure than local governments. However, the risk of people using information about infrastructure for terroristic or otherwise malicious purposes is comparatively low for Nebraska’s power and energy assets. Since there’s been no threat that warrants extra regulations for Nebraska, LB16 and its restrictions on information sharing would be overstepping what is necessary for local safety.
Even if this information about energy infrastructure and power providers isn’t exceedingly important to Nebraskans, they should consider the precedent it sets and what information will be withheld in the future in the name of security and public safety. Through the use of vague language and the guise of security, similar bills keeping information from the public may continue to come. So while it might start with information that seems of little importance to citizens, as long as Nebraskans fail to pay attention, it could lead to much more drastic cases of information being made private, and it'll all happen right under their noses.
Graham Guenette is a sophomore English major. Reach him at email@example.com or @DNopinion.