If Maine’s incoming legislators want an example of something they shouldn’t do once they’re sworn into office next month, they can look to Mississippi.
A legislative committee there recently voted to shield all contracts approved by the Legislature from public view by exempting them from the state’s public records law. Under the policy approved by the House Management Committee, and due to be considered by the Senate Rules Committee this week, such contracts “shall be confidential and shall not be released to any person or entity, except as specifically directed by the House Management Committee only when the committee deems necessary for the execution of the contract.”
The legislature’s bid for secrecy means that Mississippi taxpayers can be kept in the dark as their money is used to carry out the public’s business.
The legislative committee’s vote to shield contracts from public view came after the news website Mississippi Today filed a public records request seeking a contract the Legislature has signed with EdBuild, a New Jersey organization lawmakers have hired to review and potentially rewrite the state’s public school funding formula — a matter of potentially far-reaching consequence for many Mississippians.
The contract is worth $250,000, Mississippi Today reported, and the Legislature did not use a competitive bidding process to award the contract. But beyond a minimal amount of information about the deal, the public will be in the dark when it comes to the precise terms of the contract, including the scope of work, terms of payment and the ability for lawmakers to hold the contractor accountable for poor performance or non-performance.
When it comes to contracting, public oversight helps to improve the process and the ultimate quality of service for the public. Without public oversight of contract awards, there’s a higher risk of government officials awarding contracts for personal gain. Such actions are responsible for billions in lost public U.S. dollars each year.
We don’t expect the Maine Legislature to try to shield all of its contracts from public view. Fortunately, the exemptions in Maine’s Freedom of Access Act don’t explicitly extend to legislatively authorized contracts. By comparison, Mississippi’s public records law gives that state’s legislature wide latitude to decide which of its records are public and which aren’t. According to Mississippi Today, the public body has decided that its members’ travel records are its only public records.
Even if we don’t expect such a blatant move to undermine the principles of open government in Maine, there’s still a lot of work the state could do to improve transparency surrounding contract awards and to make it easier for members of the public to obtain contracts and review them.
At a time when Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has made it a priority to contract out more state services, the state doesn’t routinely post information online about the successful bidders, and the governor has eliminated a requirement that large awards — those of more than $3 million — receive an extra layer of review by the attorney general.
Last year, the Maine Legislature supported a bill requiring the state to publish online cost-savings information associated with competitive contracts. LePage tried to veto the bill but missed the deadline to do so.
More than a year later, the LePage administration is apparently still in the process of creating the rules needed to implement the new law but has not said when that work will be completed.
Maine residents deserve easy access to information about who is providing critical state services and how the LePage administration is transforming state government through more contracting.
While the blackout on information about state contracting in Maine isn’t as bad as it is in the Mississippi legislature, there’s still work for Maine to do. Lawmakers here can look to Mississippi, and take the exact opposite tack.