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Sunshine creates more government transparency

Transparency is not natural. No one – politician, public official, or not-so-public official – is eager to be held accountable by their employer. Not a single one is waiting by the phone to answer questions about what they may know, what they may be doing, or what they’ve done. It doesn’t work that way.

No, journalists who are focused on straight-news reporting and who create a story from a source origin use every bit of their monthly data plans. Ask a journalist about the amount of time required to report and write – let alone to edit – a story that may take five minutes to read.

Reporting on the private sector is challenging, because sources may have no interest in participating. That’s their right.

But these same challenges shouldn’t exist for reporters who focus on the public sector. Too often the difference between the two isn’t always clear among those who serve in government at any level.

Every week is Sunshine Week for journalists at Franklin News Foundation. The core of our work is focused on the public sector with coverage in 35 states. Our national newswire service, The Center Square, invests the full account of its time on local issues that matter to taxpayers.

Editors and reporters at The Center Square focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of government, holding politicians and unelected bureaucrats accountable for what they are and aren’t doing at the state and local levels across the country.

Dogged persistence and diligence matter. Over the past four years, Franklin’s journalists wrote more than 650 stories about now-former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

The Center Square was first to report on the hundreds of pages of federal documents that were released the night before Thanksgiving, which ultimately led to Illinois Democrats turning on and thus ending the career of the Chicago Machine’s Chief Executive Officer. Our story, incidentally, was rewarded by Twitter censorship with a brief – though never explained – platform suspension.

We report the news with a taxpayer’s sensibility, taking that additional reporting step that Big Media does not by asking specific questions about the cost of government – anything from the way that statehouses spend other people’s money to the ways in which they get that money from the citizens they represent.

Any reading of the Constitution gives the impression that coverage of government should be relatively simple. The operations of government should be open and clear. Whether the story is focused on the municipal animal control or the Office of the President, government should operate with full transparency. Our representatives and their staff should be interested in explaining their activity to those who fund it.

But any average American who has questioned the activity of their local dog catcher or their state legislature or the federal government knows that’s too often not the case.

Again, nobody – not your school board president, not your state legislator, definitely not your representative in Congress – is waiting by the phone hoping that a reporter calls them to check in and ask about what they’re up to. Journalists know “circle back” and “whatever” are synonyms.

Politicians have priorities, especially in budgets. Every operating budget for every size and shape of government allocates dollars to every kind of initiative, but rarely are enough resources dedicated to adequately respond to citizens’ requests for information. Our Freedom of Information laws, in many states, are toothless and allow government too many opportunities to sidestep or stall while readying scant information it eventually releases to the public.

As an exercise, submit a freedom of information request for something at a local or state government and see for yourself what you get back and when it arrives. See if even the most specific requests, where information you seek has been narrowed, are fulfilled. See how long it takes. And then see how much information has been redacted. What’s left is frequently unhelpful.

Journalism has changed over time. Straight-news reporting once was a commodity. Most metropolitan cities were served by multiple newspapers and independent reporting staffs at radio and television stations. Even the smallest towns had viable, 7-day-a-week newspapers that covered local government.

That is no longer the case. The blame is varied: the rise in cost of producing a newspaper every day. The rise of “Twitter journalism.” And the rise in distrust of journalists. Each helped shrink newsrooms with even fewer reporters who are vying for the truth, and checking government via compulsory, pocketbook-focused reporting.

At the same time, most local and state – and certainly the federal – governments expanded in size but not in transparency. Government has grown while newsgathering has shrunk. The amount of time and treasure to request, receive, and report government comings and goings has remained virtually unchanged. It’s a tragic equation in which bad governments win and good taxpayers lose.

Many view government as too big, too complex, and too far beyond the man on the street’s ability to question and understand. That need not be the case.

Government should not be able to cloak its mechanics, its decisions, or its operations from the citizens it serves and get away with it. At least, if journalists have anything to say about it.

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Elsewhere in America… 

NATIONAL

The PRO Act, which passed the U.S. House Tuesday on a largely partisan vote, could eliminate most forms of independent contracting, gig work and freelancing – potentially impacting as many as 59 million freelance workers who represent 36 percent of the total U.S. workforce. But according to a new survey of freelance writers, the majority don’t want to be a full-time employee of a company – they value their independence. Among those surveyed, 75 percent said being a freelancer is “very important” to them; 73 percent said they’d rather be a contractor than an employee. The majority surveyed also said the union-backed bill could “negatively impact their livelihood” and “cause their business to suffer financially,” if passed in its current form.

NEW YORK

As the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo reels from twin scandals – at least six accusations of sexual harassment and improper behavior from the governor, and continued accusations that the state tried to cover up the number of COVID-19 deaths tied to nursing homes – a third scandal may be rearing its head. A report from The Times Union of Albany argued that the construction of the replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge was plagued by defective materials and efforts to conceal shoddy work. Officials with the New York Thruway Authority insist that the bridge, now named for Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, is perfectly safe and sound. But a settlement between the bridge contractor and the state remains confidential and has some observers wondering what information has yet to come to light.

NEW JERSEY

Legislation that recently legalized recreational marijuana in the Garden State elicited some consternation over a clause that forbade authorities from notifying the parents of minors caught with pot or alcohol. Despite protests from some lawmakers over this aspect, the bill was passed and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy. But now a bipartisan group of lawmakers is introducing bills to reverse that prohibition, and there are indications that Murphy approves of such an effort and would sign it.

NORTH CAROLINA

An effort in the General Assembly seeks to to prevent the base unemployment insurance tax rate for experienced employers from increasing in 2021. Lawmakers are looking to keep the base contribution at 1.9%. The legislation was recommended by the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Unemployment Insurance. It also looks to ensure wages that may reduce unemployment benefits are earned within the same week as the benefit payment and to allow “back-to-back” extended benefit periods for COVID-19-related unemployment claims and regular unemployment claims until the end of the year.

GEORGIA

Lawmakers in the Georgia House unanimously passed a bill last week to increase the foster care adoption tax credit. The bill, which has the support of Gov. Brian Kemp, increases the annual tax incentive from $2,000 to $6,000. State officials estimate the measure could cost the state $4.8 million in revenue over the next five years.

TENNESSEE

A proposed constitutional amendment to add the state’s right-to-work law to the Tennessee Constitution passed the Senate last week for the required second time. The amendment would prohibit discrimination against workers based on their “membership in, affiliation with, resignation from, or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.” Amending the constitution requires two approvals by both legislative chambers in the General Assembly – once by simple majority and again by two-thirds majority after an election – before going to voters for approval during the next gubernatorial election. The Senate also passed for the second time a constitutional amendment to change how the state’s attorney general is selected.

VIRGINIA

A Virginia government employee who claims she was falsely accused of leaking documents to the media is seeking whistleblower protection after being put on administrative leave from her job with the Office of the State Inspector General. According to the lawsuit, whistleblower Jennifer Moschetti reported allegations of alleged criminal activity by the parole board. This includes allegations that former parole board chair Adrianne Bennett violated state law by asking colleagues to falsify a report and doctor board meeting minutes. It also alleged the board violated procedure by failing to properly notify victims before the board decided to release an offender so release would be easier.

WEST VIRGINIA

Legislation to allow the West Virginia School Building Authority to spend additional money on maintenance projects for vocational programs passed the House of Delegates last week. House Bill 2906, sponsored by Del. Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, would allow the authority to spend up to 10% of its annual construction and major improvements budget on vocational programs. Currently, the board can only spend up to 3% of that budget on such programs. Maintenance spending would include the allocation of money for lease purchase options, county maintenance budget requirements, submission of project designs, set-asides to encourage local participation and some other forms of spending

OHIO

If Gov. Mike DeWine vetoes a bill limiting his emergency powers, the Ohio Senate president quickly will schedule a vote to override – a change from what happened at the end of last year. The General Assembly passed a similar bill in December that DeWine called dangerous and a disaster. He vetoed it, and, despite holding majorities in the House and Senate to override, Senate lawmakers let the legislation die. That won’t be the case this time, said Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, who issued a news release after the House passed Senate Bill 22 and the Senate approved final changes to it last week.

INDIANA

All of the employees of a small construction firm in northwest Indiana have said they no longer want the union representing them. They want out. But they can’t get out. In February, the regional National Labor Relations Board rejected the petition of employees of Neises Construction Corp. of Crown Point to decertify the union, the Indiana/Kentucky/Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters union (IKORCC), saying Neises is under a consent decree and had an “unfair labor practice” charge for not bargaining in good faith. The attorney representing the petitioner, construction worker Michael Halkias and his co-workers, says the charges are unproven, and the union is playing games with federal labor rules.

KENTUCKY

A group of bars and restaurants from across the state filed a lawsuit last week against Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, challenging his COVID-19 emergency orders that limit their establishments. The lawsuit was filed by Goodwood Brewing Co., which operates brewpubs in Louisville, Lexington; Dundee Tavern in Louisville; and Trindy’s, which operates a family restaurant and bar in Georgetown. The Pacific Legal Foundation represents the plaintiffs. Other businesses have tried filing suit against the governor, but last year, the state Supreme Court ruled Beshear had the authority to establish emergency orders during the pandemic.

MICHIGAN

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s secretive hush money settlements with administrative staff members continue to dominate headlines in the state, as are her administration’s refusal to relinquish data related to nursing home deaths as a result of her COVID-19 executive orders as well as her standoff with state legislators to relax her use of unilateral control of state government.

ILLINOIS

Illinois state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle continue to push Gov. J.B. Pritzker to relax his COVID-19 restrictions. State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago, wrote in Crain’s Chicago Business the governor gets high marks for managing the pandemic, but one year in, she said it’s critical there’s more clarity on how the state will reopen. “Comparable states like Michigan, Colorado, Nevada and Ohio have unveiled forward-thinking plans allowing convention centers to increase their numbers of visitors, albeit incrementally,” Feigenholtz wrote. “These mitigation plans act like a thermostat dial, rather than an on/off switch. Illinois must hastily adopt a similar strategy or more events will be in peril and perhaps even lost forever to other states.”

Illinois now has the dubious honor of having the highest taxes in the United States. The analysis by personal finance website WalletHub looked at state and local taxes, income taxes, real estate taxes, sales and excise taxes, and vehicle property taxes for the report. The study shows the average Illinois household pays nearly $9,500 a year in state and local taxes, the highest in the nation.

WISCONSIN

Republican lawmakers on Tuesday began calling for hearings and investigations after a report at Wisconsin Spotlight showed outside groups were essentially allowed to take over Green Bay’s election last fall. That report relied on emails to show that former Democratic operative Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein served as a de facto elections administrator and had access to Green Bay’s absentee ballots days before the election, and that his interference frustrated both Green Bay’s city clerk and Brown County’s clerk during the election.

Republican lawmakers questioned the refusal to purge over 200,000 voters who hadn’t cast ballots in years, a decision made by the state’s Elections Commission to mass mail ballots, and the determination to not allow the Green Party on the ballot. There were also questions about ballot harvesting, particularly in Madison.

MINNESOTA

When Gov. Tim Walz announced his plan to tax Paycheck Protection Plan loans received by Minnesota businesses forced to shut down or lay off workers during the COVID-19 pandemic , Minnesota legislators passed a law explicitly stating what the U.S. Congress and Internal Revenue Service had already determined  – PPP loans are not subject to federal or state income taxes.

LOUISIANA

U.S. News & World Report’s 2021 ranking of the best states to live in has Louisiana last for the second year in a row in an analysis that looks at things like health care, education and opportunity. The highest ranking Louisiana received was No. 42 for fiscal stability. It ranked last in crime and was No. 49 for natural environment. The other ratings were health care (46), education (48), economy (47), infrastructure (47) and opportunity (48).

The Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has decided to seek an $82 million spending increase in the next state budget, more than double the increase proposed in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget proposal. The board’s request includes an additional $40 million to boost teacher pay, $40 million to local districts’ base per-pupil allocation and $2 million to pay $2,000 stipends to certified mentor teachers.

COLORADO

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and General Assembly leadership announced a $700 million  COVID-19 stimulus package that they say will help boost the state’s economic recovery. The one-time funds, which are available after the state’s revenue forecasts improved, will focus on small business relief, infrastructure, support for families, and workforce development. The spending package is expected to have bipartisan support, as long as lawmakers focus on putting people back to work, reopening schools and providing funding for roads and bridges. “If a bill falls into one of those categories, you will very likely see Senate Republicans joining to get that bill passed with bipartisan support,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said.

TEXAS

Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Texas state government will secure its southern border with Mexico if the federal government under the Biden administration will not. “The Biden Administration has created a crisis at our southern border through open border policies that give the green light to dangerous cartels and other criminal activity,” Abbott said. “Border security is the federal government’s responsibility, but the state of Texas will not allow the administration’s failures to endanger the lives of innocent Texans. Instead, Texas is stepping up to fill the gaps left open by the federal government to secure the border, apprehend dangerous criminals, and keep Texans safe.”

CALIFORNIA

Hundreds of protestors gathered last week outside the state Capitol building in Sacramento after the RecallGavin2020 campaign announced it had gathered more than 1.9 million signatures to force a special election to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Organizers cite Newsom’s year-long COVID-19 mitigation efforts, among the most restrictive in the nation, including banning inside gathering for months at places of worship; widespread fraud perpetrated within the state’s unemployment system; and the state’s high tax-and-spend policies leading California to lose population last year for the first time in its history as reasons to recall the governor.

OREGON

Oregon Democratic lawmakers want to give themselves raises, despite the ongoing pandemic and economic recovery. Legislators in the state make $31,200 per year, in addition to per diem, but a bill would revise pay rates to match the state’s annual mean wage, which was $53,890 in 2019. “I think all politicians should take a 15% to 20% pay cut depending on how long they’ve been in office and put that money back into our schools, police department, and other funds,”  a Salem resident said of the legislation. “They’re paid too much money for what little they do.”

This article was originally posted on Sunshine creates more government transparency

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