Sunshine Week: Lawmakers continue attacks on government transparency

By Edwin Bender
Executive Director
National Institute on Money in State Politics

Transparency in our elections, our government, and our democracy doesn’t just happen. It’s hard work. It takes funding. It needs staff. Perhaps most of all, it takes an understanding that the value of transparency can’t be measured as an immediate return on investment.

Transparency can nurture a culture of trust in our elected representatives, further an understanding that government serves important functions for citizens, and provide a measure of accountability. When the flow of information about our elections, our government, and our democracy is curtailed, we’re nurturing a culture of mistrust and cynicism.

Sadly, a budget subcommittee in Montana did just that recently when it took aim at the state political practices commissioner’s office — the office that educates candidates about how to lawfully campaign, and helps them understand the laws governing campaign finances and ethical expectations. The office that compiles campaign disclosure reports from hundreds of candidates each election cycle, and asks candidates to fill out forms properly and in a timely manner. The office that informs the press and public about who is funding the campaigns of the candidates who, if elected, will spend taxpayer money. The office where citizen accountability interests are nurtured.

For doing this important job, for creating “some tremendous efficiencies,” as one committee member noted, the subcommittee voted to cut the in-house attorney who helped eliminate a case backlog, and reduce the salary of the commissioner by 23 percent. The vote was along party lines.

Afterward, Sen. Janna Taylor (R-Dayton) reportedly said, “If you’ll remember, Sen. [Gene] Vuckovich [D-Anaconda] on the floor told us, ‘To the victor goes the spoils.’” Nurturing the public’s interest in transparency and accountability was trumped by party politics.

Sadly, what happened in Montana isn’t an anomaly. In state after state, lawmakers are targeting disclosure agencies.

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission is facing budget cuts that mean the small agency will have to lay off three staff and not make planned computer and software upgrades that would make it easier for candidates and lobbyists to file required disclosure reports. The Maryland State Board of Elections and Connecticut’s Office of Government Accountability also face cuts. In Texas, where former Gov. Rick Perry (R) is facing two indictments on ethical issues, the budgets for both the Texas Ethics Commission and the public integrity unit of the Travis County district attorney’s office face major cuts.

In an interesting turnabout, the governor of Georgia has proposed doubling the funding for that state’s ethics commission. More than a decade ago, that commission faced a budget cut of more than 40 percent, along with criticism for instituting random audits of candidate disclosure reports and issuing fines.

“There is no question in my mind they are being strangled by the Legislature in order to keep them from enforcing the ethics law,” attorney Michael Jablonski said at the time. “These are people who want to do their job. They just are not given the resources to do it.”

In the face of tight budgets, it’s easy for lawmakers to argue for cutting ethics and disclosure commissions. But the citizenry should be alarmed when politics trumps the public’s right to meaningful information about its elected representatives and who supports their campaigns. The public should be outraged when lawmakers directly attack transparency, for with no transparency there can be no accountability.

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