With thanks to Jan Alpert, RPAC Chair:
As the legislative year draws to a close in most states, it is a good time to assess its impact on genealogists. RPAC, member organizations, and concerned genealogists wrote letters to appropriate legislators, committee chairs, and governors. We are pleased to report that—when the genealogical community became aware of an issue and responded—we had a favorable impact on legislation. Record closures were averted or remained unchanged in several states.
As we reported in March, a Working Group consisting of state and local vital statistics executives and one lawyer, drafted the 2011 Revision of the Model Vital Statistics Act which extends the closure periods for access to vital records to 125 years after the date of a live birth, 75 years after the date of death, or 100 years after the date of marriage or divorce. You can read the proposed 2011 Model Act at http://www.naphsis.org/about/Documents/FinalMODELLAWSeptember72011.pdf
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) put the 2011 Revision “on hold” in April 2012. Impatient for its DHHS approval, the National Association for Public Health Statistics and Information Systems (NAPHSIS) endorsed the Model act in 2011. Frustrated by the delay in approval at the federal level, several state vital records officials introduced the 2011 Model Act in their state legislatures.
- Oklahoma was the first state to approve the revised Model Act, which remained unnoticed until early 2013 when the new procedures for accessing vital records were implemented.
- Washington: RPAC first heard about the 2011 Model Act being introduced at an administrative committee in Washington State early in 2013. Genealogists immediately became involved and the issue never made it out of the committee.
- Texas: The 2011 Model Act was introduced in the Texas state legislature. The Texas genealogical community testified against the bill and it again died in committee, in part because the vital records officers were unable to present any compelling reasons to extend the closure dates for accessing vital records.
- Oregon: The 2011 Model Vital Statistics Act was introduced in Oregon. Although other provisions of the bill passed, there was no change to the existing vital records closure periods. In the hearings Mitch Greenlick, chair of the House Health Care Committee, commented about the volume of responses against the Act from genealogists.
After the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, the Town Clerk initiated legislation to close access to death records that have been public and open records since the earliest settlement of the state. Again after testimony by several genealogical organizations and letters from many organizations, including RPAC and the press, the legislation died on the floor. Another bill which passed at the last minute and mostly impacts the press, authorizes police to withhold crime scene photographs and 911 audio recordings where the individual speaking describes the condition of a homicide victim.
California also had a last-minute trailer bill tacked on to the budget, which would have made the delivery of documents by county and town officials optional. We were not quite sure if this bill included documents for which the requestor paid a fee such as copies of vital records and deeds, or whether it applied to requests for copies of administrative meeting minutes. The press and genealogy organizations, including RPAC, wrote letters objecting to the legislation. As a result the Governor vetoed the bill and a replacement bill was passed and signed without this objectionable provision.
In addition to the above, RPAC also wrote the Governor of Georgia and several of the Georgia Senate and House committee chairs, objecting to the severe cuts to the Georgia Archives budget. As a result of several months of activities by the Georgia Genealogical Society, supported by RPAC, partial funding was restored and the Archives were transferred from the Secretary of State to the Georgia University System.
Action Steps: We expect the 2011 Model Vital Statistics Act to be introduced in many more states in the next legislative sessions. We also need to be alert to the possibility that some of the provisions may be introduced as state regulations. We encourage the president of each State Genealogical Society and the APG Chapter President to visit with the chairman of the House and/or Senate Health Services Committee in your state before any legislation is introduced. Educate them on the importance of family history and especially family health history that requires timely access to death records. Genealogists recognize there are many beneficial reasons to update the Model Act, but the provisions extending the closure periods for access to vital records are not necessary and will have a detrimental effect. To date the Model Act proponents have been unable to present any compelling reasons to extend the closure periods limiting access to vital records.
RPAC would appreciate hearing about the results of any legislative visits at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also let RPAC know any way we can help support your efforts.