|Environmental reporters focused on their states often find state legislative workings to be frustratingly opaque. Above, the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge in 2021. Photo: Library of Congress.|
Feature: Prying Open the Statehouse Doors
By Erin Jordan
No matter the politics of your state, more legislative decisions — including those that affect the environment — seem to be happening behind closed doors.
What’s a good statehouse reporter to do?
Here are some suggestions from a group of environment reporters who have grappled with this challenge.
Tracking big projects
Jeniffer Solis, energy and environment reporter for the Nevada Current/States Newsroom, has recent experience reporting on the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Humboldt County, Nevada.
The project, which sits on the largest-known lithium deposit in the United States and the third largest in the world, could be very lucrative for the state, but still must clear regulatory hurdles that generate public records.
“These projects do have to go through a lot of layers,” Solis says. “So you can catch them before they get to the federal approval process if you are checking in on your local governments.”
She recommends looking for water and air quality permits.
Projects like these also might require a change in zoning, which often means you can get your hands on an application that includes a description of the project and contact information for the developer, among other details.
For my part, I used these records to write about the expansion of cryptocurrency mining in rural Iowa, where I’m an investigative reporter for The Gazette.
When states don’t collect data
Sometimes you need data that states don’t track. If so, says Julie Cart, environment reporter for CalMatters, it might be because “they don’t want to know things.”
CalMatters' Cart recommends
looking at who has an
economic interest in the project.
Whatever the reason for their lack of data tracking, Cart recommends looking at who has an economic interest in the project. “You are more likely to have up-to-date, pertinent data if you have a financial interest in something,” she says.
For example, Cart reached out to a California lumber company when she wanted an accurate inventory of trees in the state.
You can also check out companies’ annual reports, which often include a wealth of information on the industry, the company’s assets and plans for the coming year.
If you’re interested in aquifer data, places to look include the U.S. Geological Survey. In some cases, the USGS has mandates from Congress to work with states to collect water-level data from major aquifers, such as the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer, which underlies parts of eight states, including Oklahoma.
Another place to look for this information might be neighboring states that share the same aquifer, but have different data-collection strategies or are more transparent about their monitoring.
Pushing for authoritative information
One of the most iron-clad sources for authoritative, nonbiased information at the state level is what’s known in my state, Iowa, as the Legislative Services Agency.
Your state may have a different name for this group, but it often has a requirement to put aside political beliefs to provide objective information to lawmakers. This frequently includes financial analyses of bills showing how much they would cost if implemented.
|The author used zoning application records to investigate the expansion of cryptocurrency mining in rural Iowa, such as Bitcoin mining machines next to a power substation in Grundy Center, Iowa. Photo: Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette.|
If you’re lucky, the equivalent agency in your state also has employees willing to talk — either on or off the record — to explain their analyses in detail to make sure you understand them.
One vexation of being a reporter is when a state agency won’t respond to your request for public information. We’ve had an ongoing problem with this in Iowa, but it was especially bad during COVID, when Gov. Kim Reynolds and her administration cited the pandemic as a reason for delaying many requests.
In July 2020, I was so frustrated by a monthslong wait to get information about a $50 million cloud computing contract the state had signed that I asked the governor about it at a state park centennial celebration. She apparently wasn’t expecting any press at the event and started to walk away from me saying “No, no, no!” and waving her hand. It caused more of a stir than if she had just taken time to talk with me.
Within 30 minutes, though, her communications director called my cell and asked me exactly what records I needed. He sent them that afternoon.
Moral of the story? Sometimes it helps to show up in person.
Finding comparison states
We all know how helpful a good case study can be in helping readers understand the effects of new legislation. But don’t limit yourself to examples from your state.
Environmental newsletters or digests — I like Midwest Energy News — can point you to related news stories from other states that include potential sources.
Colin Kinniburgh, climate and environmental politics reporter for New York Focus, suggests looking for state scorecards or rankings.
For example, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy does an annual ranking of states’ energy efficiency. Just be prepared to delve into the group’s methodology and acknowledge the industry tie in the report.
Who’s behind this bill?
Some states make it harder than others to figure out which lawmaker or interest group is backing a bill. New York, for example, lists which groups register to track a particular piece of legislation, but not whether they support or oppose it, Kinniburgh says.
But reporters still can find out who or what is pushing legislation.
I recommend getting a list of lobbyists
and all their clients. … Solis suggests
examining campaign donations.
I recommend getting a list of lobbyists and all their clients. Iowa provides this online, but in other states you may need to ask.
Solis suggests examining campaign donations. “You can look at whether they got a donation from the company or entity connected to the bill they are trying to pass,” she says.
Timing can be important here, so look at whether the donation came in directly before the vote or if the donor has been a long-time supporter. Either way, it could be a story.
I picked up another great idea I plan to use from a journalist at the 2023 Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference. If it’s hard to tell who is driving a new bill in her statehouse, she Googles snippets of language from the bill to see if it pops up in bills from other states.
USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2019 that more than 10,000 bills introduced in state legislatures across the country in the previous eight years were almost identical to bills written by special interests. Many times, those copy-and-paste bills appeared in multiple states, the news outlets reported.
If you find a similar bill in another state, you might find that that state requires more information about backers or that there are news reports identifying supporters.
Reporters are used to roadblocks, but we’re also good at rerouting. If you’re having trouble getting information at the statehouse, talk with another reporter or editor about the challenge you’re facing. Chances are good they’ve got some ideas or at least will let you vent. Then sit down and find a new approach.
[Editor’s note: For more on covering climate, energy, agriculture and environmental issues at a statewide level, check out a panel (including an audio recording) on the subject from SEJ’s 2023 annual conference. Author Jordan drew material for this article from the panel and was a panelist, along with the other journalists quoted in this story.]
Erin Jordan is an investigative reporter for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Iowa, where she covers agriculture, water quality, electric vehicles and government accountability, among other topics. She also serves on the Investigate Midwest board, teaches at the University of Iowa Summer Journalism Workshop and is an SEJ member.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 37. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.