The Week of Three Pressers, pt. 3: The dull drudgery of good government UPDATED

Here is my belated update on Shumlin’s Friday news conference. Toplines: New transparency measures make it much easier to get information about the workings of state government; Shumlin calls for greater public access to records of criminal cases and investigations; and he endorses Secretary of State Condos’ proposals for tougher reporting requirements on campaign spending and fundraising.

Governor Shumlin’s third news conference in three days was the shortest and most boring of them all. The subject matter was important, mind you — but there was no sizzle, as there was on Wednesday with the Jim Deeghan case or on Thursday with Shumlin playing rope-a-dope on gun control.

Nope, instead we were talking government transparency, and two new features of the State of Vermont website designed to fulfill Shumlin’s goal of maximum “accountability and transparency.”  Vermont has a poor record in this regard; in its most recent ranking, USPIRG had Vermont tied for 38th place (with Tennessee) for transparency in government spending, with a grade of D minus and a score of 51 on a scale of 1-100.

The Administration used USPIRG’s standards as its benchmark, which strikes me as a very good thing.

One of the new features is “The Governor’s Dashboard.” It allows people to find the latest information on Shumlin’s top priorities and goals, and measurables on progress made (or not). The second is “Spotlight,” which is a one-stop destination for details on the state’s finances — budget, spending, revenues, grants and contracts, and audit reports.

The information on Dashboard and Spotlight isn’t new, but these web features are designed to provide one-stop access, without having to visit numerous state websites or pore through stacks of documents.

Both websites look well-designed and very useful. The real test will be keeping them accurate and up-to-date.

After the jump: more on transparency, increasing access to criminal records, and tougher campaign finance reporting requirements.

Shumlin said that increasing transparency was one of his top goals from day one, and he expressed some disappointment with the pace of the effort.

Change in state government takes time,. And one of the frustrations I’ve had as Governor is not only to develop and implement the right policies, but to have the entire family of state government change with the times.

He added that the Legislature wasn’t as helpful as he’d hoped.

When I came in, I said, let’s sit down with the Legislature, and we’ll go over all the 200 and whatever it is exemptions to public records, figure out which ones make sense and which ones don’t. And that never really got the results I was hoping for.

Criminal records: Shumlin would also like to expand public access to records of criminal cases and investigations. The Governor’s legal counsel, Sarah London, explained the impetus for Shumlin’s proposal:

Part of our concern are a number of recent decisions by the Vermont Supreme Court where the court concluded that the existing language creates a categorial and indefinite exemption from the Public Records Act. That’s what this will most directly change.

Shumlin would like the Legislature to adopt existing federal standards for releasing such information, which state that “records of criminal investigation can only be withheld if disclosure would result in specific harm.”

There’s another advantage to accepting the federal guidelines: “There’s a large body of record around the federal guidelines that will clarify when something should be disclosed and when it can’t be disclosed.”

Campaign finance reporting: The Governor endorsed proposals from Secretary of State Jim Condos for increasing transparency in campaign finance reporting. Condos has called for increased frequency of campaign finance filings, meaningful penalties for failing to file on time, new technology to allow campaigns and organizations to file online, and new disclosure requirements for Super PACs such as Vermonters First.  

Shumlin called Condos’ proposals a meaningful response to the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which blocks states from imposing limits on campaign-related spending.

We can’t fix the damage of Citizens United until it’s overturned or until we pass a constitutional amendment, which I hope will happen quickly. But what we can do is make sure we have much quicker, more transparent knowledge of what is happening, who is giving to whom, and how it’s all falling out.

…As candidates, we’re often in the awkward position of wishing that information was more transparent but not having the mechanism, the technology at the Secretary of State’s office to get the information out. We sit there literally with pen in hand, filling out the forms. So we have a technology challenge that the Secretary of State is aware of, and I’m glad that he’s aware of it and that he’s committed to cleaning it up.

I was heartened by Shumlin’s endorsement of Condos’ agenda, especially given the Legislature’s complete failure to act on campaign finance reform in 2012. I was even more heartened by Shumlin’s acknowledgment that the reforms will carry a price tag. He promised to work with Condos and the Legislature to find money for the necessary technology.

All in all, it was a positive presser. And while it’s more fun to write about stuff that goes sideways, I’m glad to see Shumlin making such a seemingly strong commitment to openness in government. My sense is that he is honestly committed to the issue, and he deserves some credit for the progress made so far.  

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