The Legislature’s war on government transparency

By Stephen Bowen | May 08, 2009

With an economic downturn, a state budget crisis and a flu pandemic going on, Mainers could probably be forgiven for missing the news that a handful of state legislators are working to cripple Maine’s Freedom of Information Act by advancing legislation to hide the salaries of public employees.

Last summer, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, the public policy think tank for which I work, launched a new Web site, maineopengov.org. Among the hundreds of pages of public information it makes available to voters, it lists the names, positions, and salaries of some 90,000 public employees and retirees, from state and university system employees to state retirees and school teachers. All of this data, which is publicly available to anyone today, was obtained using requests made under Maine’s robust Freedom of Information Act laws.

If LD 1353 passes, though, the salary each public employee receives will not only have to be removed from the Web site, it will no longer be available to the public in any form. Maine’s municipalities, nearly all of which list the names and salaries of their employees in annual town reports, will have the option of withholding that salary information by name. Taxpaying citizens, looking for salary information on a University of Maine professor, for instance, will instead be given a list of salaries for every professor and be left to guess which professor is paid how much.

The bill is essentially one sentence, stating that “salary information as it relates to an individual state, county, municipal, school, University of Maine System, Maine Community College System or Maine Maritime Academy employee is confidential.”

For what possible reason would state legislators attempt to strike such a blow in favor of government secrecy? Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Kennebec, assistant Democratic leader of the Senate and the bill’s primary sponsor, wrote in a Kennebec Journal column that she doesn’t feel “that it is in the public's interest to know what every individual state worker, by name, makes.” She claims that having such information readily available to the public paying the salary of public workers “is voyeuristic, sleazy and feeds into witch hunts.”

Since when is it “voyeuristic and sleazy” to want to know how much public employees, who work for the public and are paid with tax dollars, earn in salary and benefits?

Sen. Marrache was joined at the recent public hearing on the bill by Sen. Deb Simpson, D- Androscoggin, who told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that she questions “why everyone needs to know what each government worker earns by name.” A much better approach, she said, would be for the “transparency of the salary to continue,” but the names should “disappear.”

Four others testified in favor of the bill, including the representatives of three public employee unions and one state employee.

Luckily, a broad range of people testified against the bill. Mal Leary, a reporter and president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, testified that the bill “overturns” Maine’s long tradition of government transparency, and would “draw a veil of secrecy over the fundamental right of Mainers to know how their tax money is being spent.”

Maine Heritage Policy Center CEO Tarren Bragdon characterized LD 1353 as “a vindictive, heavy-handed attempt to erect an impenetrable wall of government censorship between the public and any meaningful review of how tax dollars are spent in Maine.”

While Sen. Marrache does not feel it is in the public’s interest to know the salary information of public employees, the public itself clearly disagrees. Bragdon noted in his testimony that since the maineopengov.org Web site went live in September of last year, its 96,800 visitors have conducted 417,000 unique searches of the data available on the site, collectively spending 7,900 hours exercising their right to know how their tax dollars are spent.

One wonders how the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Bliss, D-Cumberland, Rep. Blodgett, D-Augusta, Sen. Bowman, D-York, Rep. Bryant, D-Windham, Rep. Crockett, D-Augusta, Sen. Simpson, D-Androscoggin, Rep. Smith, D-Monmouth, and Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Kennebec, feel about so many members of the public availing themselves of the public information the Web site provides. Do they agree with Sen. Marrache that the 96,800 people who have visited the site so far are “sleazy” and “voyeuristic”?

Providing some of the public hearing’s final testimony of the day, Pem Schaeffer, a retiree and self-appointed “pot-stirrer” and government watchdog from Brunswick, encapsulated the fundamental problem with Sen. Marrache’s bill precisely:

“It is said that information is power, and denying access to information concentrates that power. This bill would clearly take power away from the people; the same people under whose consent you govern. It would intentionally and explicitly rescind our access to the details of government business; a sacred right to public information that has existed for centuries. This is not a trivial matter; it is a fundamental change in the relationship between government and the governed.”

It is indeed. Taxpayers who are interested in preserving their right to know how their tax dollars are being spent need to be sure that lawmakers understand how important such access is to them. Your right to know what government is doing is under threat here in Maine as never before.
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