Sunshine or bust(ed)

By: 
Bob Bonnar

There have been a lot of solutions proposed for Wyoming’s budget shortfalls, but the most significant legislative effort to address the disparity between the amount of money the state spends and the amount it receives wasn’t launched by the revenue or appropriations committees that usually dictate taxes and spending.

The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in Cheyenne on Tuesday elected to lead the charge to balance budgets and increase accountability in government spending when it passed a bill entitled “Public Records Act” by an 8-4 vote. The bill will now move on to the full legislature with the weight of the committee behind it, but that won’t be enough to convince other lawmakers to pass a law that will impose a 10-day deadline on government officials to provide access to a public document, and significantly increases the penalty for those public servants who fail to meet that deadline.

If the bill is going to become law, citizens will have to let their legislators know that they desire passage of the measure that will finally shine the light of transparency on spending and other political decisions in Wyoming because bureaucrats in Cheyenne and local government officials scattered across the state will be corraling their legislators from now until the session begins to convince them that the deadline is too difficult — and the punishment for failing to meet it too severe. Neither is true.

Governments in Wyoming have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on technology in the past decade, and there is no reason they shouldn’t be able to produce the vast majority of requested records with little more than a click of a button. If a 10-day deadline is too onerous, it is because they chose to spend their money on systems that made their jobs easier without allowing the public greater access to government documents. That’s on them, not on you, and we urge citizens to let legislators know that they don’t want to hear that the “computer ate my homework” when they request a public document anymore. Existing technology really does make it possible to store and retrieve documents much more efficiently, and it is time to motivate government officials to take advantage of the technology at their disposal for the benefit of citizens — as well as themselves.

Passage of this bill should provide that motivation, as it allows public officials to be charged with a misdemeanor if they fail to produce requested records within the allotted time out of negligence, but more importantly it makes the offense a felony if records are “knowingly or intentionally” withheld from the public.

Legislators will be hearing how “concerned” government officials are about that provision, and that is exactly why they need to pass the bill. If officials aren’t concerned about what happens when they don’t allow access to public documents, citizens won’t ever have the access they are entitled to. It is time to let the sun shine on public business in Wyoming, and the best way to accomplish that is to burn the officials who deliberately try to keep us in the dark.

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