By Megan Poinski
Legislators and advocates on the right and left are often at odds on policy, but a conference next week will bring divergent groups together on something they can all agree on: the need for greater openness and transparency in government.
The Maryland Public Policy Institute, along with the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, Progressive Maryland, and Community Research, are sponsoring a session Dec. 8 to discuss ways that the government can be more accountable to the people through increased disclosure of information.
“Many groups would like to see where the state is spending its money,” said Marta Mossburg, a senior fellow at the free-market Public Policy Institute, who put the conference together. “The groups who are going to speak have very different viewpoints on where the state should go, but they all agree that they would like to see greater transparency.”
Different viewpoints from across the political spectrum will be represented at the conference. Del. Warren Miller, a Howard County Republican, and Del. Heather Mizeur, a Democrat from Montgomery County, who have both championed legislation to increase transparency through legislation, will be represent the legislature.
Representatives from three national organizations – the Institute for Truth in Accounting, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Common Cause – will also speak.
Miller has been a longtime advocate of transparency. In 2008, he proposed a bill that created a searchable database with basic information on recipients of government contracts and grants. He has also worked with several counties to bring their government information online, where it can easily be accessed by constituents.
“Any time you have scandals, misappropriated money, contracts worth criticizing, transparency is the best antidote,” Miller said.
More financial disclosure
James Browning, Mid-Atlantic region director of Common Cause, who will be speaking at the conference, said the corruption case involving Democratic state Sen. Ulysses Currie of Prince George’s County underscores the need for more transparency.
Investigators believe that under the guise of being a consultant for Shoppers Food Warehouse, Currie accepted bribes from the grocery chain in order to use his position to do favors for the company. With Maryland’s part-time legislature, most members have other jobs – and the people should know who pays their lawmakers when they are not in Annapolis. Browning also said that people need to know who is giving money to politicians’ campaigns, since those lawmakers could favor them once in office.
If the state were to make financial disclosure forms, which each elected official fills out annually, more accessible, it would shine a light on the hidden influence exerted on elected officials, Browning said. Right now, in order to see the forms, a person needs to physically go to the State Ethics Commission office in Annapolis and request them. (Currie failed to disclose his income from Shoppers Food Warehouse.)
There is already good access to campaign finance disclosures available on the Maryland State Board of Elections website, he said, but it is now much easier for people to hide behind corporate entities.
As budgets get tighter, Browning said, the people wondering why some items are being cut and others are being spared.
“They need to see that the reason is because of campaign donations,” Browning said.
Another problem that could be solved through more transparency is politicians giving money to organizations they are affiliated with, Mossburg said. Sometimes, lawmakers propose grants or funds to nonprofit organizations where they or someone in their family sits on the board. In that case, there is no direct financial payoff for the lawmakers, but they receive indirect benefits.
Assembly hearings, action online
During the last General Assembly session, Mizeur championed legislation to make more information available through the General Assembly’s website. Changes were made administratively, and once the session begins in January, standing committee meetings will be broadcast through the General Assembly website. The Senate will broadcast live audio of committee hearings, and the House of Delegates will broadcast live video and audio.
The long-standing $800 annual fee for the general public to get up-to-the-minute updates on bill status during legislative sessions has also been dropped. The fee generates about $105,000 annually.
Mike Gaudiello, director of information technology for the Department of Legislative Services, said everything is on track for the increased access to begin. Servers were upgraded over the summer, and the General Assembly’s website will be reconfigured with more information about how to access the information.
“Essentially, it’s the same access that we’ve had for many many years,” Gaudiello said. “The fee has just been removed.”
While Miller has worked toward increasing government transparency, he would give the state a D on information accessibility. There is a lot more that can be done to give people more information on contracts and grants – like easy tracking all recipients of government loans, he said.
Mossburg agreed. She said that there is a lot of government data that is available online, especially during the O’Malley administration, but it isn’t always easy for the average person to understand.
“We need more ‘Google government,’” she said, referencing the easy usage of the popular search engine.
She hopes that the lawmakers participating in the conference, as well as any policymakers in attendance, will listen to what is discussed and use the peoples’ concerns to propose new laws.
Founder and CEO of the Institute for Truth in Accounting Sheila Weinberg is counting on it. She will be presenting her group’s model legislation, the “Truth in Accounting Act,” at the conference. This legislation would mandate that the state calculate the budget using generally accepted accounting principles, not “political math.” Weinberg said that many states, including Maryland, tend to artificially move some of their financial liabilities off of the balance sheet so it looks like they have balanced budgets.
For more information on the forum, visit http://mdpolicy.org/events/page/transparency-transcends-political-boundaries