It wasn’t many years ago that a government that embraced transparency did so merely by holding open meetings and providing documents to the public in a timely fashion. As time has gone on and technology has improved our access to government, the public’s expectations for government transparency have increased.
For the government that used to provide a copy of the budget to whomever asked, now the expectation is that the budget will be on a website, and that the public can view the check register. For the government that used to hold open meetings, now the expectation is that the meeting will be telecast on TV or streamed over the Internet. And people can legitimately be critical of the government that fails to meet the new expectations.
All of this brings me to two developments this month in the land of state government transparency:
First, the state of Idaho finally launched its own government transparency website, transparent.idaho.gov. State Controller Brandon Woolf and his staff worked diligently and quietly on the project to produce a website where taxpayers can look at how state government spends money and learn other interesting facets of government. And they did so at minimal cost, working within the confines of the agency’s existing budget. Good for them. It has been a four-year dream of mine to see the state develop a government transparency website, because transparency is a proper and fundamental role of government.
Now the second development: Our news website, IdahoReporter.com, began recording and archiving every floor session of the House and Senate. We did so because legislative leadership had a policy in place that said the state’s public television system, which provides the video and audio streaming from the Legislature, can save only five days’ worth of floor session videos. After that, the files are deleted. Lawmakers said they’d continue to study the issue.
But we believe that voters and taxpayers in the 21st century should be able to view any session of the Legislature they want. Idahoans voted for the people holding the debates and casting the votes, and that should trump just about any consideration. The Legislature, in most of its decisions through the age of technology, has done a great job keeping up with transparency expectations. In this one area, the Legislature slipped, we believe.
Many lawmakers have expressed support for our decision. Some lawmakers are rather chagrined. And I’ve gotten little love for this decision by the supposed-leaders of government transparency, the Idaho media. The Idaho Falls Post Register cheered our move, but the “reporters” at the Statesman and Spokesman-Review have been openly hostile. Oh well. But, then, Mark Twain never met them.
In addition to providing voters and taxpayers an unvarnished view of what their lawmakers are saying and doing, we’re also helping preserve legislative history and process. Our Legislature is a model for how a Republic should operate. It’s a model for what Congress should be, and perhaps a model for legislative proceedings in other states. I believe it will be useful, in 2033, to look back at the 2013 Legislature to see how our process worked, to make sure we remain true to our values and our system of government, and that we’ve not embraced the mechanics of government that have made Congress into the mess that it is.
I’d prefer that the Legislature record its own proceedings for posterity and make available to the public every single House and Senate floor debate. Until that happens, we’ll devote the resources to do it for them. It’s the right thing for government transparency, right for Idahoans and right for the legislative process.