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Transparency in the statehouses

From the Spring 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1. I should have known that the…

From the Spring 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 1.

I should have known that the pro-transparency campaign promises spewed from the lips of political candidates during the 2010 election season were too good to be true. In fact, I probably should have my head examined because I naively believed many of those promises.

As our cover story reports, the collapse of the transparency promises once the candidates took office has been nothing short of astonishing.

“Government is spending your money and you have a right to know when, where and how much,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign website asserted.

That sure sounded great.

But Walker has refused to release public records, shunned interview requests from media, and occasionally disappeared from public view.

In Ohio, governor-elect John Kasich made plans (later abandoned) to be sworn in privately in his own home.

In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley’s campaign website claimed that “From day one, she will demand accountability and reform across government.” But shortly after taking office, Haley met privately with the key lawmakers who constitute the Budget and Control Board, which is required by law to be open to the public.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott probably takes the prize for open hostility toward the concept of the public’s “right to know.” Scott attacked his opponent for the Republican nomination for refusing to release campaign donor names. “Without transparency, there is no accountability,” he said at the time.

Florida journalists say that, since taking office, Scott has limited access to press conferences and public events, forbidden agency heads to talk to reporters, delayed responses to public record requests and hand-picked the reporters he wanted to cover certain events.

What’s going on?

Perhaps the kudos President Barack Obama got for his promise to improve federal government transparency on his second day in office led them to believe they would get considerable mileage out of such pledges. Perhaps they were willing to say anything to get votes from voters who are increasingly insisting on government accountability on spending issues. Perhaps they actually believed what they were saying.

Nothing is every as easy as it seems. Florida’s Governor Scott, the former head of a huge health care company, had never held public office and probably was uncomfortable when he learned what public oversight of his office really means: Access to public employee email messages and salary information. Reporters following you everywhere you go and second-guessing everything you do. Endless newspaper editorials criticizing your performance in office.

But most of the rest of the new governors have many years of public office under their belts. They should have known what transparency and government oversight is about.

President Obama’s pledge to open the federal government has largely stalled. While some additional discretionary disclosures under the federal Freedom of Information Act are occurring, federal agencies are not nimble fighter jets that can swiftly change course. Rather, the White House is more like an aging battleship trying to change the direction of the entire U.S. Fleet.

The most obvious transparency efforts on the federal level involve enhanced use of information technology. Those efforts are not focused on government oversight. Rather, the bulk of the administration’s attention goes toward helping American businesses use government data to make money. This is a noble goal to be sure, but a limited one.

With the ascendency of the Tea Party and its anti-government spending agenda, I predict more candidates in the 2012 election cycle will make the same transparency and accountability campaign promises. But if those folks get elected, I’m not expecting much from them. Unfortunately, it will probably be politics (and government) as usual.