Many of us who live and breathe public records were dismayed by last year's Minnesota Supreme Court decision that rebuffed a Minnesota newspaper trying to investigate a costly school construction project. The court ruled that because Johnson Controls' contract with the St. Louis County school district did not mention the state's public records law, the company did not have to hand over its records to the Timberjay newspaper.
Last week, the Legislature unanimously approved a "fix" that both requires government contracts with private entities to include language about public records, and even if that language gets omitted, the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act still applies.
Here I will disclose that I have several dogs in this fight: An organization whose board I serve on, the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, lobbied for this change (and gave Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger its Finnegan Freedom of Information Award this year). The Minnesota Newspaper Association also worked for the change. Should Gov. Mark Dayton sign the bill into law, you can be assured the Star Tribune will use it, as we have in the past, to hold contractors accountable for how they spend public money (a recent example is here).
The bill "restores the law to what it was before," said Mark Anfinson, a lobbyist for the newspaper association.
Unfortunately, lawmakers granted one industry what appears to be a one-year reprieve from the law. The provision excludes "health plan companies, managed care organizations, county-based purchasing plans, third-party administrators, providers, or other vendors, or their parent or subsidiary, contracting with a government entity for health care related services" until June 30, 2015.
Anfinson told me the health plans were concerned that their contracts with care providers would become public, thereby telling the world what kind of deals they negotiate with doctors. Apparently, no one had ever asked for this data before, even though it was public prior to the Timberjay-Johnson Controls decision.
The law also reverses another restriction of data that highlighted the tension between open government and privacy. Earlier this year, Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services announced that it would end its long-standing practice of selling bulk driver and vehicle data to private companies, including insurers and media organizations like us. That is, if we can afford it.
This is a somewhat unusual records issue, because in this area the media has access to information that regular citizens cannot have. But we have used that data to inform investigative stories such as this one. Insurance companies, credit agencies and others use that data to make money. So the Legislature decided the state should continue to offer that data, but with some significant restrictions, including a requirement that anyone receiving the data hire an auditor to ensure it's being used legally and protected from unauthorized use.
I have an inquiry into Gov. Mark Dayton's office to see whether he will sign the bill.