Blocking the Sunshine

Posted April 17, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

It is understandable that some state employees are uncomfortable having their income known to anyone with access to the Internet. But, making this public information unavailable to the public is a step in the wrong direction. That is why the Legislature should reject LD 1353, which would make this information confidential.

Just a month ago, the Maine Heritage Policy Center was awarded the second annual Sunshine Award from the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition for its Web site, MaineOpenGov.org, which provides a searchable database of state spending, including salaries. The salary listing includes job titles and names.

This information is public, but the conservative group’s offense was to put it all in one place. While it is true that the Maine Heritage Policy Center hopes to shrink government — and calling attention to the billions of dollars spent by state government and, to a lesser degree, making it less attractive for people to work for the government, is part of that mission — this is not a good reason to make what has long been public information confidential.

LD 1353, sponsored by Assistant Senate Majority Leader Lisa Marrache, a Democrat from Waterville, would allow the listing of salaries by positions. It would make confidential “salary information as it relates to an individual state, county, municipal, school, University of Maine System, Maine Community College System or Maine Maritime Academy employee.” Five of the bill’s eight co-sponsors, all Democrats, represent communities in the Augusta area, where many state employees live.

Sen. Marrache said attaching names to salaries was not “helpful.”

Tim Belcher, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, said there is a difference in the level of accountability between department heads and someone who cleans the office building.

He’s right, but makes the false assumption that the public doesn’t make this assumption. Letters to the editor and commentary in this and other papers show that public outrage is generally reserved for the highest paid employees, not janitors and secretaries.

Further, viewing a long list of similar job titles with vastly differing pay tells only part of the story. It may be that a former lobbyist now works for the government at much higher pay than others in a similar position. Or that a former state employee is now a contractor, getting paid more than she was in a job that was eliminated to shrink the state’s payroll. Such connections can only be made with names included in the information that is available to the public.

At a time when the federal government is — slowly — making more information available to the public, Maine should not move in the opposite direction.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/04/17/opinion/blocking-the-sunshine/ printed on August 20, 2014