What Do They Have to Hide?
BY CARL GRAHAM
Are taxpayers entitled to know how their money is spent, and to whom it is paid? You’d think so. And so do a lot of judges. But in Montana results don’t always follow findings, and converting this modest proposition into a practical reality is not as simple as it might seem.
You may have read that Montana Policy Institute recently won a court battle to find out just how much we pay our state employees. But that victory for Montana’s taxpayers barely dented the wall that’s been erected between public infor-mation and the public. A penchant for secrecy combined with arcane accounting and budgeting systems allows basic information to be withheld regardless of the party in power or the virtuous noises of constitutional and statutory pronounce-ments. The tactics are consistent, the obfuscation relentless, and it’s all done on the taxpayer’s dime.
In our public pay example, one tactic we’ve seen is the argument that nobody has a right to know, or should even want to know, how much public employees are compensated. These are generally the same people who consistently (and sometimes correctly) bemoan “undeserved” executive bonuses or pay packages.
The difference, of course, is that nobody goes to jail for not kicking in their “fair share” of a bank president’s bonus. People do go to jail for not paying taxes. That creates a higher accountability standard for public dollars. Courts have consis-tently agreed that taxpayers’ knowing who benefits from their tax dollars is not only fair, but essential to accountable government.
Another and more insidious tactic is to hide data in a labyrinth of budgetary, accounting, and techno-logical worm holes. Montana’s state government has literally hundreds of pay accounts, covering everything from basic hourly wages to, according to court records, horseshoe reimbursements.
These pay accounts are scattered around in budget and accounting spreadsheets that require professional-level accounting and database management skills to manipulate, or even to find. The result is that anyone—even a state legislator—who wants to see how much state employees are paid will only be provided an hourly rate; no overtime, bonuses, or even the number of hours worked. Which brings us to why we should care.
Montana has had a pay freeze in place for the past two years. And yet state agencies have provided millions of dollars in raises to selected employees. In addition, according to data provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division, average employee pay outpaced inflation from 2004 to 2010, and the number of state employees earning less than $25,000 per year decreased by nearly 60 percent while the number of those earning more than $100,000 increased by five times during that same period. Since anecdotal evidence suggests most employees are not seeing raises, we at MPI wondered who was benefiting from this pay migration and why. So we asked.
Unfortunately, the information was hidden behind computer systems whose designers apparently didn’t contemplate people asking awkward questions, an open records law written when fax machines were cutting edge technology, and a bureaucracy that was unable or unwilling to overcome any of these inconveniences. Since the law doesn’t allow for penalties or even arbitration, we were force to sue. And we won, although as of this writing we’re still awaiting the data.
And therein lies a lesson to all advocates of transparency and accountability in government, whether coming at it from the Right or the Left. Too often government transparency has been confused with government translucency, allowing only enough light through to see shadows of what’s truly underneath. We’ve seen it in Montana as lip service is paid to “right to know” laws while real, actionable information is hidden behind layers of red tape, obfuscation, and complexity. The system is fixed against those who write the very checks that the political and bureaucratic class cash.
These barriers to transparency and accountability exist at all levels of government. Lip service and selected data releases create the illusion of openness, but in truth are often merely shiny facades over a tangle of, well, we don’t know what’s under there. That’s the point. In our case public pay was the issue, but there are many more battles to be fought if we’re ever to go from the translucent to the transparent.
Carl Graham is CEO of Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research center in Bozeman.