Openness in state gov’t? AP survey shows obstacles

Published 2:37 pm Monday, March 14, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) — More openness in government. Lawmakers across the country, including the Republicans who took control in many states this year, say they want it. But a survey of all 50 states by The Associated Press has found that efforts to boost openness often are being thwarted by old patterns of secrecy.

The survey did find signs of progress in a number of states, especially in technological efforts to make much more information available online. But there also are restrictions being put in place for recent electronic trends, such as limits on access to officials’ text messages.

The AP analysis was done in conjunction with this year’s Sunshine Week, an annual initiative begun in 2002 to promote greater transparency in government. To observe Sunshine Week, which runs March 13-20, AP journalists in all 50 statehouses reported on both recent improvements and the obstacles that still exist in many places.

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First, the positive: In Alabama, where Republicans won control of the Legislature for the first time in 136 years, lawmakers can no longer bring up budget votes without warning. And Budget Committee meetings are now streamed live online. In the past, legislative leaders typically wrote state budgets in private.

“The public and the press can know where the dollars are being spent and why they are being spent,” Republican House Budget Chairman Jay Love said of the new practices.

In Indiana, there’s a new website that pulls together budget data, spending reports and other financial information that had previously been spread across multiple sites. New Hampshire launched a website in December that gives the public a window on where the state’s money comes from and where it goes — with links to budget documents. The public can also look up the salaries of state employees.

But the openness often goes only so far. Secrecy still prevails in many states among lawmakers of both parties, especially on budget matters where competing interests with big money at stake jockey for advantage.

While political watchdogs in Utah have praised some of the state’s transparency efforts, a purely political problem remains: Republicans, who have more than a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, negotiate the budget in private with almost no input from Democrats. The same goes for meetings between the governor and GOP leaders, which usually are unannounced and not open to the public.

In New York’s state capital, Albany, critics have compared the budget process to the old Soviet Politburo — but, some suggest, even more secretive and more in the red. Despite a reform bill that passed two years ago, legislative leaders still craft budget bills behind closed doors and send them out for quick votes. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who rode to office vowing to reform state government, has focused more on ethics and lobbying reform than on transparency.

Even when there seems to be progress in some states, governors and legislators routinely exempt themselves from open records laws or defy them altogether.

Take Kentucky, where lawmakers long ago excluded themselves from the provisions of the open meeting law. They’ve used that exclusion to its fullest in recent budget negotiations, the AP found, closing themselves into legislative conference rooms with state police officers posted at the door as they figure out how to make up a $1.5 billion shortfall.

Or Nevada, a state where the Legislature is exempt from open meeting laws because it is not defined as a “public body” like local governments and agencies. While many budget discussions are carried out in public, the AP survey found most key details will be decided behind closed doors.

“Anytime you do that, go into a secret meeting, it makes the taxpayers wonder, ‘What are they saying that they’re afraid to tell us?'” said Barry Smith of the Nevada Press Association, which monitors lawmakers’ openness.

The public push for transparency stems in part from new political leadership in many states, the AP survey found. Republicans now control 29 governorships and 26 state legislatures, and many pledged to improve openness during campaign season last year.

Technological advances have also played a role, as have expectations from a skeptical public demanding more information about how their tax money is being spent during the still-painful aftermath of the long and deep recession.

Advocates for open government say they believe many states are on the right track.

“We are seeing less of the backroom deal and more openness and engagement with citizens,” said Ellen Miller, co-founder of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation which promotes government transparency. “Of course politics are what politics are, and as long as there’s money, well-heeled lobbyists may always have the inside track. But there is more engagement with the public than we’ve seen before.”

Still, obstacles remain.

In Iowa, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad wants to create a nonprofit organization to advise the state Economic Development Department on attracting business. As a nonprofit, the group would be allowed to set up a private venture capital fund and avoid public records laws.

Fred Hubbell, a former department director, asks why it couldn’t be open to scrutiny.

“I suppose some people would say that would discourage people from getting involved, but it strikes me citizens have a right to know,” Hubbell said. “Otherwise, you run the risk of a perceived conflict of interest.”

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has taken a step back from his state’s generally strong record on transparency. His office has announced plans to charge a fee to fulfill open records requests, a practice allowed under state law but waived by the previous governor, Republican-turned-independent Charlie Crist. Scott’s spokesman said the decision was made to save taxpayer money, not to block access to information.

Some states have moved toward greater transparency in the wake of political scandals, the AP found.

In Oklahoma, where felony bribery charges are pending against a current House member and former state senator, the state has taken steps to open up the legislative process. Conference committees that previously met in private will now hold public hearings. And bills must be posted online for at least 24 hours before they can be heard.

North Carolina lawmakers began moving toward greater transparency after a bribery scandal in 2006 sent then-House Speaker Jim Black to prison. Republicans who took control of the Legislature for the first time in more than a century this year promised even more progress, but the pledge fell apart early in the session after GOP lawmakers closed a party caucus meeting with lobbyists to discuss whether to legalize video poker in the state.

House Speaker Thom Tillis defended the meeting as an informational session designed to let lawmakers ask questions. “I guess some people just want to turn a blind eye toward input before they formulate policy. To me that doesn’t sound like good policy,” Tillis said last month.

In Nebraska, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require high-ranking administrators at the state’s public universities and K-12 schools to disclose their employment contracts, including payments and benefits from private foundations. The bill follows a scandal two years ago in which a former state college professor accepted a deferred compensation package from the college’s foundation worth nearly $500,000 in private funds.

While taking advantage of improvements in technology, lawmakers in some states have also taken steps to block access to the information technology provides.

In Delaware, lawmakers have opened up Finance Committee hearings while simultaneously exempting from disclosure e-mails they or their aides send or receive. That means communications to constituents, lobbyists and state agencies are off-limits.

In Ohio, the public can’t find out whom lawmakers are calling or texting, particularly if they’re using a personal cell phone. Public records requests by the AP for the numbers of cell phones legislators use for state business were rejected by both parties and in both the House and Senate. Gov. John Kasich’s office also declined a request for personal cell phones for the governor and his staff.

Some states have passed laws banning the release of records of lawmakers’ personal phones. Lawmakers are often seen talking and texting on their personal devices. It’s unclear whether they are conducting state business and they have taken steps to keep citizens and the press from finding out.

Just in the past week, Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed into law a measure to prohibit release of public officials’ text messages, voice mails and other electronic communications, and to significantly increase the fees to get public records.

As of 2009, 25 states allowed the use of electronic devices on the floor or in committee, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.