Wyoming’s lack of transparency in state government is legendary. The Center for Public Integrity labeled it the worst in the nation in 2015, and the Legislature has done nothing since to improve that rating.
Now there is some movement on one aspect of this vital issue, with newly elected Gov. Mark Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines forming a financial transparency working group.
“This isn’t about study but about results,” Gordon said in a news release during the campaign. The group has been directed to identify and develop specific solutions to improve transparency and accessibility to state financial data “that can be implemented efficiently and expediently.”
One of the unstated goals, of course, is to do it as “inexpensively” as possible. But Wyoming shouldn’t scrimp and scrape to fulfill its obligation to the public to be as open as it can about spending and the legislative process.
One of the members of the new working group, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), is taking a lead role in crafting a bill that would tighten laws on agencies responding to public records requests.
Case is co-chairman of the Joint Corporations Committee, which is reviewing rules written by the State Division of Administration & Information that incorporate a controversial fee charged for accessing large public records requests.
Case’s subcommittee heard testimony on the policy of charging the public for any electronic records request that costs more than $180 to fulfill. Payment must be made in advance.
Its draft bill didn’t address fees at all, but it would create a 10-day time limit for producing records unless there is an undefined “good cause” for not meeting the deadline. The proposal would also give some teeth to enforcement of violations by public employees who fail to comply with a records request, ranging from a fine of $750 to termination.
The latter is guaranteed to make public workers sit up and take notice, and that’s a good thing.
Another positive aspect of the new-found attention to state government transparency is that it’s being driven by diverse interests, from liberal and conservative advocacy groups to the media and lawmakers.
American Transparency, an Illinois-based group dedicated to government transparency, sent more than 800 public records requests to Wyoming agencies in 2017. Its website project, Openthebooks.com, says the group’s goal is to create an online repository of spending by state, local and federal governments.
But after a year, American Transparency said only 12.5 percent of Wyoming government entities responded to the requests. That’s an appalling record.
Matthew Glans, senior policy researcher at the Heartland Institute, is a critic of Wyoming’s lack of government transparency, including the new fee.
“These costs are very likely to have a negative effect on those seeking public records, discouraging some from attempting to access the information,” Glans wrote in a Nov. 2 commentary for the Heartland Institute. “Fees must be kept reasonable to avoid a chilling effect on those seeking public records.”
American Transparency has had some success in Wyoming. It captured 33,000 public employee salary records and 500,000 individual checkbook transactions from local governments. The group reported it had great cooperation from the University of Wyoming.
But it was understandably outraged when, with the help of the Equality State Taxpayer Association, it had to fork over what it rightly called “a draconian fee” of more than $8,000 in February when it requested five years of checkbook records from the State Auditor’s Office. The group said it received only 12 days of records by June.
The two groups are suing State Auditor Cynthia Cloud. American Transparency’s running battle with Cloud over its request is vividly recounted on Openthebooks.com:
“In God we trust, our politicians we must audit. Historically, the only politicians that resist our transparency effort have been folks with something to hide. It’s a big red flag for our organization when one of our open records requests is rejected or slow-walked. …The fact Auditor Cloud admitted that producing a clean checkbook would take ‘years’ is very embarrassing.”
For her part, Cloud blamed lawmakers and the state’s poor economy for hampering her efforts to make financial data more transparent. In a June 29 Casper Star-Tribune op-ed, Cloud explained the Legislature rejected her funding request for software that would allow confidential information — such as payments to doctors who treat rape victims — to be automatically removed from financial records.
“The entire state could have benefited from this initiative,” Cloud wrote.
Heartland’s Glans noted while Wyoming has a website that tracks state spending and vendors, the Center for Public Integrity found the state’s effort “fell far short of providing a fully functional search feature.” The website requires users to search by vendor name before being able to access any other expenditure information.
Charging a fee to obtain public records is antithetical to our democracy, and it should be a part of the Joint Corporations Committee’s efforts to eliminate the negative impacts of A&I’s new rules. Wyoming Outdoor Council attorney John Radar and others have logically suggested that the state adopt a fee waiver to groups operating in the public interest, such as journalists, academic researchers and advocacy groups.
Other states, including California and Nevada, have created online repositories that provide detailed salary information about public employees. Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina have shown how to enable the public to review government spending without needing to create systems that break their state piggy banks.
Wyoming officials’ interest in financial transparency is encouraging and should be applauded. But, as proposed, the initiative addresses only a small segment of the state’s opacity woes, and should not be mistaken for a comprehensive transparency reform effort.
If Gordon, Racines and their incoming colleagues are serious about providing the public with visibility into the workings of their state government, they need to set their sights much higher, such as eliminating anonymous, untraceable dark money from state elections in general and corporate campaign spending in particular.
Let’s require legislators and other state elected officials to complete and file conflict-of-interest and financial-disclosure forms that at least meet rudimentary disclosure standards.
While we’re at it, let’s outlaw closed-door legislative party caucuses, which have long been held by Republicans in sharp contrast to the Democrats’ open meetings.
In the late 1990s, the Legislature began taping House and Senate sessions, but almost solely for archival reasons. Anyone who wanted to hear what was discussed by the respective chambers had to wait until the Legislature adjourned for that year’s session to have a specific day’s tape played back by staff at the State Library.
It was a ridiculous policy. Today one can listen online to a morning or afternoon session of either house after it’s concluded. If you are watching the Senate in action in the morning and want to know what happened in the House at the same time, you can use the legislative website later to find out what you missed.
The Joint Appropriations Committee also tapes all its meeting and makes them available on the website. The next necessary step is to have all legislative committee meetings recorded and available to the public — a change Rep. Bunky Loucks (R-Casper) unsuccessfully tried to get approved in 2016. The bill should return next year.
When it considers ways to bring open government to the people, Wyoming has many tracks it can travel. Why not work on several at a time to see how much progress we can make?