The latest challenge to Minnesota’s data practices law is known at the State Capitol as the Tubby Smith Act. A well-intentioned attempt by the University of Minnesota’s student newspaper to learn more about the outside income of Smith and other U coaches sparked this year’s legislative squabble pitting public sector transparency vs. individual privacy.
After the U declined the Minnesota Daily’s request, the student journalists took their case to the state Department of Administration, which rules on requests for information under the state’s Data Practices Act. The department agreed with the U, ruling that only income from the university should be disclosed — not outside income from other sources. The department asked the Legislature to clarify its position in the law by inserting the words “employer-paid’’ before “added remuneration’’ into data practices legislation now being debated.
Without broader context, the department’s decision seems relatively harmless. Faced with a flu epidemic, a multibillion-dollar budget deficit and a never-ending U.S. Senate race, do Minnesotans really care how much Tubby Smith earns hosting a basketball camp for junior high kids? Not likely. But the inexorable erosion of the state’s once-groundbreaking Data Practices Act is a concern. What started out in the post-Watergate era as a four-page document that presumed government data should be open to the public and news media is now a maze of exceptions more than 100 pages long. In what has become a troubling annual ritual in St. Paul, various proposed changes would add a couple of pages more.
The desire for openness in public information often collides with a growing appetite for privacy in our daily lives. “It’s bad enough in this day and age people are saying, 'What are public employees making?’’’ police union lobbyist Brian Rice told the Star Tribune. “But now all of a sudden, because you work for the government, you are owned by them?’’
In reality, there’s nothing bad about taxpayers knowing how much public employees are paid. It’s essential for government accountability. And fortunately there’s no dispute at the Legislature over public-salary data. At least not yet.
For now lawmakers are focusing on outside income. A Senate bill would restrict access to data on outside income and freebies; a competing and welcome House bill would make it clear in the Data Practices Act that any added remuneration from an outside source would be made public.
It’s easy to make light of how the House bill could play out. Rice, who serves as a lobbyist for the Minneapolis Police Officers Federation, warned that the bill would require public workers to disclose all outside income — even money earned mowing a lawn. In fact, the House bill would not require agencies to collect new data. It would only make accessible data that they request at their own discretion.
There’s a more realistic threat from the Senate bill. Attorney Mark Anfinson, who represents the Minnesota Newspaper Association, points out that it might be important for the public to know that a high-level government regulator is doing contract work for a private entity. If the remuneration clause is diluted, such serious conflicts could be hidden from public view.
Similarly, the Senate bill could undermine efforts to develop a strong conflict of interest policy for the U’s Medical School. For example, even if the school starts requiring faculty members to disclose sources of outside income internally, it’s likely that passage of the Senate bill would keep such data from being made public.
With the House bill, the Legislature has an opportunity to stem the tide of exceptions to the Data Practices Act. In this era of renewed hope for government accountability, that would be a sign of progress.