Really Want Transparent Government in SC?

The press in South Carolina has pointed to two transparency issues in recent days.  Governor Haley and her staff routinely delete emails and texts we are told.  Meanwhile the Department of Education told Sumter Senator Phil Leventis that it would cost half a million to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents.  South Carolina has taken a number of steps to make our government(s) more transparent.  Some of them are even helpful. But we have a long way to go to useful transparency.

I have doubts about some of those measures like the mandatory roll calls on far too many bills on the floor of the House and the Senate. A small number of members could … and did request roll calls on bills. But it is useful to have the roll call votes available on the website without having to wade through the journals of each body. If they wanted us actually to use those reports, however, they would put them in a downloadable format that you could read into a database program to analyze without having to write a software routine to parse the page.

If you really want transparency on roll calls, however, you would not publish just floor votes but, more importantly, subcommittee and committee votes.  As a lobbyist I knew that the ballgame was over by the time a bill reached the floor.  Substantive amendments rarely happen on the floor. If I wanted to really change a bill, the best place is in a subcommittee.  There, you can put in the qualifiers, add teeth, remove teeth, repeatedly adjourn debate or flip the bill so that it does the opposite of what the proponents wanted.  Reporters usually only cover subcommittees if they have been told there will be a dog fight.  Even if a vote is recorded, it is not readily available to the public.  Subcommittee and committee votes should be published on the legislative website along with the language the vote addresses.

Many of our transparency resources are better designed to find gotchas than to do analysis.  Running down patterns in Ethics Commission filings is a pain in the derriere even with the information online.  Why not just provide ways for a data dump so that the press, researchers and citizens can go data mining.  Likewise, I can drill down in this year’s year-to-date spending for state agencies on the Comptroller’s site to find out who got paid what.  But I can’t do that by agency for prior years. I have to drill down by vendor, guessing at whom got paid by who.  It’s all in the computer.  Let me —and everyone else—dump it to my computer and analyze to my heart’s content.

The opaque transparency provided by the websites is nothing compared to the abuses of FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.  I’ll leave aside the wholesale disregard for the Open Meetings Act among local governments.  I frequently ask state agencies for information and data.  If it’s something they want me to have or don’t care about, I get it in a reply email.  If they don’t want me to have it, I’ll be told that they “will handle that as a FOIA request.” I recently asked one state agency: “Does that mean you’ll drag your feet and charge me a bunch of money for it?”  Instead of being a tool for transparency, the agencies use the Act as a barrier to transparency, reading its deadlines as “no sooner than” and employing its cost-shifting provisions to stop inquiries.

Senator Jake Knotts, during Thursday’s Fiscal Fitness Subcommittee meeting, opined that the General Assembly should set the cost of copying because of the ways agencies used it to shield information.  The General Assembly should address the cost issue, but also the use of deadlines to delay.  I’m usually after data and not dirt.  The more the agencies put and keep their data on the web in a format I can use for analysis, the less I and other citizens have to ask for.  If agencies don’t want actions which embarrass them uncovered by searches for dirt, they should only do things of which they would not be embarrassed. It is the People’s Business.

I’ll write about economic development transparency later.

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