(Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories looking at transparency in Montana. This story looks at what some believe are the obstacles from getting information put online. On Thursday, we will have a story on what happens when the wrong information gets posted.)
It’s a mixed bag at best for Montana when it comes to transparency and it’s not likely to get better any time soon, at least according to bills vetoed in the last legislative session and other recent attempts to get information posted online that would make it quick and easy for the public to access.
Even the head of the state’s largest employees’ union said he agrees with a recent preliminary opinion by the attorney general’s office that public employees’ salaries and pension information should be public.
So what’s the hold up?
Some say it may be money.
In May, the governor vetoed HB 444, a proposal by Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, that would have created a budget database website “for taxpayers’ right to know.” He said it would not provide “no return on taxpayer investment.”
But Burnett said it was just a case of the state not wanting to make the information public.
The site would have allowed “easy access to detailed information on budgets, revenue, appropriations and expenditures of taxpayer money,” according to the text of the bill. HB 444 was estimated to cost $288,000 in fiscal year 2012 to set up the system with as much as $110,000 in expenses in each of the three years after that.
Montana Watchdog is awaiting a final decision by the state attorney general on making public employee pension information public after requesting the names of the top pension earners from the Teachers Retirement System and the Public Employees Retirement System.
Attorney General Steve Bullock said his office has already opined that employees’ names, salaries, job titles and other employment information was subject to public disclosure.
“Such information helps the public to understand how the state is using its tax dollars and what budget priorities the state has set for those dollars,” he wrote in his preliminary decision. “Accordingly, such information is He said the state workers’ retirement benefits were earned while they were public employees and subject to public disclosures.”
He added publication would be subject to the public’s interest in understanding how the government is functioning.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, the state’s largest employees union, said his organization agrees with the attorney general’s opinion.
“It’s public record and we’ve never suggested otherwise,” he said.
He said his complaint is that only printing the top 10 or 100 benefit recipients gives a skewed picture of how much money people are really retiring on. He said the average school employee gets about $22,000 a year and the average state employee receives $12,000.
To get information on salaries can be a daunting task. The Montana Policy Institute, which publishes Montana Watchdog, has tried for more than a year to get actual state employee compensation data. To see the data MPI has compiled, go to: http://www.opengovmt.org/.
On the high end, the Sunshine Review, a website devoted to “bringing state and local government to light,” gives Montana a “B” on their transparency report card, while counties in the state receive a “D.”
On the low end, a state transparency website scored by the U. S. Public Interest Research Groups, a nationwide network of researchers, students, organizers, and advocates, gives Montana an “F.”
Ian Marquand, chairman of Montana Freedom of Information Hotline Inc., which deals with First Amendment issues, said people who work in Montana believe the open meeting laws work well.
But Montana does not fare well when ranked by national organizations, depending on the criteria used, he said, adding the state does not have a lot of deadlines for releasing records.
“In some minds that’s a negative,” he said.
Marquand said that at the state level, transparency is pretty good. But most of the complaints come from the local levels, such as school boards and county governments.
John Barrows, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association, said Montana has some of the best open meeting laws in the country. “But it is sometimes hard to enforce because there is no real penalty,” he said.
He said the recent Legislature had 61 bills that in one way or another dealt with transparency.
“There were a number of laws that helped a little bit, a couple real bad ones but for the most part those got killed,” he said.
Barrows said the MNA supported HB 444, which he said was the second time such a bill was introduced to the Legislature.
He said it was not only cost that got the bill vetoed, but the governor also noted that many of the documents are already available online.
The advantage to House Bill 444 was that it would have provided online information on state agencies from a single source, Barrows said, adding that much of the information may already be online, but it is not easy to obtain.
He said the MNA did not support the bill when it went before the House because it objected to some of the bill’s proposals, but the sponsor made some changes and the MNA threw its support behind it.
(Editor’s note: Coming next, what happens when confidential information is released?)