Thursday, January 13, 2011

One Bad Bill

With the General Assembly in session again, easy targets for the political commentator abound.

I usually do a story for the Gazette on silly bills filed each year. I'll get to that soon.

But a bill that's not so much silly as just bad has captured my attention.

Sen. Steve Martin (R-Chesterfield) has introduced S.B. 812 which would amend the Virginia Freedom of Information Act to, essentially, make the identities of public employees secret.

Like Batman and Captain America, state and local government employees do many good deeds. Unlike the Caped Crusader or the Sentinel of Liberty, they don't really need the veil of anonymity.

What Martin's bill specifically does is require that lists of job positions, salaries and benefits of public employees, exclude the names of the employees.

The bill is a reaction to a story in The Richmond Times-Dispatch last year listed those state employees who made over $50,000, along with their departments and job titles.

A lot of state employees weren't too happy that their names and salaries were in the newspaper (Full disclosure: my wife is a state employee and it didn't make our day either).

But it's unavoidable. Like the price you paid for your house -- another thing readers are often irate to see in the paper -- it's public information.

It's understandable that Martin would introduce the bill. His suburban Richmond district contains a lot of state employees. He's frankly said that he submitted the bill at the request of contituents.

Which doesn't mean it's still not a really bad idea.

It goes against the current trend, epitomized in part by the Tea Party, which I suspect Sen. Martin has some affinity for, of more rather than less accountability in government.

I sympathize with the public employees who don't want what they consider private information showing up the in the press.

Their mistake is that it's not private information.

When you take a job as a public employee, you should know that your salary is public information, just as your agency's budget is. That's part of the trade-off for good benefits and great job security.

And the situation for public employees really isn't essentially different from those of us who work in the private sector.

While my co-workers may not know my salary, my boss -- who sets it -- and the Tribune Company -- which cuts the checks -- do.

In the case of public employees, we are their ultimate bosses and we ultimately cut the checks.

We deserve to know what we're paying for and to whom we're paying it.

Sen. Martin's bill also may fall prey to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Although the impetus for the bill comes from the RTD salary list, members of the General Assembly and of the executive branch are also "public employees."

If I wanted to write a story about which legislator had collected the most per diem in a certain year, or charged the state for the most mileage, would the clerks of the  House and the Senate  have to redact the name? In the case of the legislators, that might not be very effective. If the district number were included, one could easily get the name. Still, it's a step toward keeping information from the public which they have every right to know.

Another example: My colleague at the Gazette, Cortney Langley, wrote a story Tuesday about the varying amounts of expenses that James City County supervisors charged the county for last  year. If the county had been able to withhold the names that went with each amount, there wouldn't have been much of a story there.

Instead of shutting off access to information, the General Assembly should be about allowing more sunlight into the process of government.

For instance, each member of the General Assembly gets an office allowance that is roughly equivalent to their $18,000 per year salary. But they are required to keep no records of how this is spent, nor does anyone ever return any unused portion. For that reason, the Internal Revenue Service treats that money as income to the legislators.

And, for many, it is. Some legislators have their district legislative office in their home or business, thus adding the cost of an additional phone line, far less than $18,000 a year. Others use campaign funds to pay for their office expenses -- which is allowable -- and pocket the office allowance. Some legislators actually get the use of an office free as an in-kind campaign contribution.

The General Assembly should require that this office allowance be accounted for and that taxpayers are only paying for legitimate expenses. Further, the legislature should itself publish a list each year of the per diem and expenses and mileage paid to each legislator.

This is in line with proposals that have been adopted over the past few years requiring that state government post its "checkbook" online, so taxpayers can see where every expenditure goes.

They should see who it goes to as well. Even if the recipient is a member of the General Assembly.

Bookmark and Share