Justice Louis Brandeis is famous for saying that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
Transparency in government would, Brandeis felt, help purify its actions. In the 2011-12 Legislature, several provisions were passed and signed into law that brought transparency and accountability to Minnesota government.
Unfortunately, some of these are being rolled back now that political control of the Legislature has shifted.
Local media have reported on the attempt by several members of the DFL majority to repeal the Sunset Act, which provides for a committee to investigate state agencies and commissions. Most reports state that the act was intended to eliminate redundant or obsolete agencies, but that is not what it requires.
The Sunset Advisory Commission only recommends; it is up to the Legislature to extend the lives of agencies. A repeal of the Sunset Act would mean that we go back to assuming agencies live forever.
As chief author of the Sunset Act and a member of the commission, I helped develop a report written by a very bipartisan group (four appointments each by the House, Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton, resulting in six DFL and six GOP members). It brought substantial reforms to the agencies reviewed.
One agency was found that had not operated for years; another was subsumed into a department, saving money. Changes were recommended that, for example, stopped the raiding of licensing fees paid by health professionals for the general fund.
Without the panel, would any of these reforms have happened?
But the most important part of the sunset commission process was the reporting by these agencies on their activity. Agency after agency appeared before the commission and reflected on its mission. The examination caused some to evaluate whether they were doing what they should. Advice was given on how to budget for outcomes, which is helping these agencies do a better job. All those reports now sit on the commission’s website, and citizens can see why these agencies exist.
Why would the new Legislature think this information and the commission’s recommendations are unimportant? The budget for the commission staff is less than 0.004 percent of the state budget. It could be working now, but the new majority has yet to even appoint members to the commission.
It is a mistake to think the only measure of the Sunset Act’s success is the number of agencies it closes. It is not just sunset, but also sunshine.
Alas, this is only one of several examples of lost transparency this session. A provision requiring the Revenue Department’s Tax Incidence Study to show the distribution of taxes paid by Minnesotans of different income groups was changed to remove consideration of federal taxes (a provision added in 2011).
What reason could there be for this? One possible explanation is that including federal data might have shown that taxes in Minnesota are progressive when measured across all levels of government (federal, state and local), denying a talking point common among those pushing for higher taxes on some Minnesotans.
Also, slipped into an unrelated information technology bill was the repeal of a pension accountability report created last year that would be posted by Minnesota Management and Budget. Pensions represent future obligations of the state, and transparency about the terms of these pensions and the status of the funds that pay for them could help clarify the debate.
Should this repeal pass, the public would still have to go through hundreds of pages of something called a “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report” for each pension fund to find the data rather than having it on one page. As one of the funds warns on its website about this type of report, it “may be downloaded in its entirety, although it is a large file.” It is 114 pages large, and we have many funds. Why should a citizen have to pick through all this to learn the status of these public funds?
James Madison once said: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.” It is indeed tragic that this Legislature is going backward in terms of providing Minnesotans with the means of knowing more about its work. Legislators should reject these attempts to draw the shades on the sunlight.
King Banaian is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment and a former Republican legislator from St. Cloud.