A jailbreak for public information

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Sarah Welsh

 

Information is power, and right now the public has none. Legislators and the public are rightfully outraged at Gov. Bill Richardson’s ongoing refusal to release information about his exempt state employees, including 59 positions that were supposedly cut last month. What little information has emerged isn’t good — employees who were merely reclassified as non-exempt, or who were shuffled from agency to agency despite inadequate qualifications.

Unfortunately, this is only one outrage in a series of battles over access to public information, about everything from Medicaid fraud to state investment deals. Bureaucracies may be inherently secretive, but this administration has gone much further than routine evasion or delay tactics. This is a blatant snub of the public’s right to know.

It’s gotten pretty bad, but there is hope. We have a simple tonic in hand: Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Republican Sen. Sander Rue and championed by Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish. This simple, straightforward bill would create an online Sunshine Portal that would publish detailed, up-to-date financial information from state government — tax revenues, agency budgets with monthly expenditures, investment reports and more. The online database would be free and searchable. It would list the salaries for all state jobs and provide an open-meetings tracker. In short, it would shine a light on state government that citizens from Shiprock to Deming could see.

Even in the absence of active obstruction, providing online data is the right thing to do. For those who have access to the Internet, an online Sunshine Portal could significantly ease the long, tedious process of requesting and inspecting public records. The New Mexico Foundation for Open Government fought to put that process into law, but we’ll be the first to admit that it’s time-consuming and often difficult for both public employees and citizens. Hunting down and copying paper records takes time and money. For this and other reasons, the Legislative Finance Committee has estimated that an online Sunshine Portal could actually save the state money. The Committee’s fiscal analysis states it plainly: “Three of the states that have had a transparency portal/website (Texas, Missouri and Kansas) report savings from consolidating purchases, revising their business model, avoiding duplicate studies and contracts, renegotiating existing contracts or subscriptions and not having to respond to freedom of information requests because the information is readily available and free. Additionally, the portal provided lawmakers information about spending that they could then use to ask agencies probing questions.”

This important reform is within reach. The Senate has done its part — the Sunshine Portal passed that body by a vote of 38-0. The House Judiciary Committee approved the bill Feb. 13, but in somewhat weakened form; the committee stripped employee names from the portal. Rue objected to the move — the names of state employees are clearly public information, and many of them are already online. If they are absent from the Sunshine Portal, evidence of payroll sleight-of-hand and political favoritism will still be difficult to obtain.

The bill sailed through the House Appropriations Committee unanimously on Monday, Feb. 15. .Late Wednesday night (Feb. 17), the House and Senate agreed on a compromise version of the bill.

The only sticking point for the Sunshine Portal was, indeed, the inclusion of state employees’ names. The Senate added them in, but a House committee stripped them back out. As a compromise, the portal will include the names, titles and salaries of exempt employees — those employees who serve at the pleasure of the governor — along with the titles and salaries for all classified state jobs. The bill is now awaiting the signature of the governor.

The information that will be included in the Sunshine Portal is all open and public by law. However, it resides in a number of different state agencies and currently must be obtained through freedom-of-information requests.

If Gov. Richardson signs the bill into law, the state Information Technology Department must make the Sunshine Portal available to the public no later than July 1, 2011, and the information must remain up-to-date.

It has been said that government transparency is like mother and apple pie — no one wants to go on record against it. Let’s give them a chance to prove it.

Welsh is the executive director for the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

 


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