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Research & Commentary: Wyoming Should Open Access to Public Records

November 2, 2018

In this Research & Commentary, Matthew Glans examines public records transparency and several new proposals in Wyoming that would improve the state's transparency rules, which currently rank as the worst in the country.

In a 2015 study on state government, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) ranked Wyoming last in the country among states for access to public information. The state ranked 49th for integrity of state government overall. The issue of public record transparency was pushed into the spotlight in Wyoming after Openthebooks.com, a national group dedicated to government transparency, sent more than 800 public records requests to Wyoming agencies in 2017 as part of its effort to create an online repository of spending by state, local, and federal governments. After a year, Openthebooks.com told the Casper Star Tribune only 12.5 percent of Wyoming government entities responded to the requests.

While Wyoming does have a website tracking state spending and vendors, it is not as user-friendly or functional as the programs available in other states. The CPI study found Wyoming’s site fell far short of providing a fully functional search feature. As an example, Wyoming requires users to search by vendor name before being able to access any other expenditure information.

Another concern raised by transparency advocates is the increasing charges being imposed to access public records. Under the current setup, state agencies estimate the cost of providing documents before processing the request and require upfront payment if the costs exceed $180. No current rules exist that would allow applicants to appeal the cost estimate. These costs are very likely to have a negative effect on those seeking public records, discouraging some from attempting to access the information. Fees must be kept reasonable to avoid a chilling effect on those seeking public records.

Wyoming Liberty Group Executive Director Jonathan Downing argues the state needs to draft new legislation that clearly defines how long agencies have to complete a records request and the procedures agencies can use to deny a request. In February, Wyoming lawmakers considered a revived bill that would have addressed one of these issues, by establishing a two-week deadline for compliance. No deadline currently exists. However, this bill was never considered by the full legislature.

Another bill would establish a means for applicants to contest denials and penalties for violating the new law, and it would mandate the assignment of a public records custodian at each agency, who would be responsible for providing prompt responses to public record requests. This bill would require a response within 10 business days, allow recipients to challenge denials in court, and fine custodians $750 for noncompliance.

A third bill seeks to create a user-friendly website and sets rules that would require agencies to submit documents in a prompt manner. These are both vast improvements from the current system, and it would help improve response time. More work is needed to address the issue of unnecessarily high fees.

One of the main arguments made against transparency efforts is the potential costs of implementation, but these worries are unfounded. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) notes that in Oklahoma, policymakers initially estimated, in 2007, their transparency efforts would create a total outlay for programming and implementation of about $300,000, but the real costs ended up being much lower; budget transparency only cost taxpayers $8,000, in addition to staff time. In Missouri, the state’s budget transparency website was created “within existing resources.”

ALEC also notes transparency efforts in Alaska, Kansas, and South Carolina are other good examples of how budget transparency and accountability can be properly implemented without imposing major additional costs to taxpayers.

The potential benefits of public record transparency, especially budget transparency, far outweigh the costs. Allowing the public to access vendor and spending records creates additional competitive bidding. Budget transparency also has the potential to produce budget savings. A good case study for the benefits of transparency is Texas, which implemented budget transparency measures in 2007. . Combs argued these savings were achieved by identifying wasteful spending.

Wyoming has not taken the necessary steps to make its spending and public records available to the public to the degree technology now allows. The proposed bills would strengthen the state’s transparency compliance laws and generate a website that would make accessing this information easier for taxpayers.

The following documents examine public records transparency in greater detail.
 

Transparency Is the Key to Government Accountability
https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/transparency-is-the-key-to-government-accountability?source=policybot
In this speech at The Heartland Institute’s fourth annual Emerging Issues Forum, Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center argues transparency measures are the key to keeping government spending and regulation under control.

Beyond the Basics: Best Practices in State Budget Transparency
https://www.volckeralliance.org/sites/default/files/attachments/Beyond the Basics - The Volcker Alliance.pdf
This working paper from the Volcker Alliance identifies and discusses the basic principles of sound budgeting and provides recommendations for improving budgetary transparency, based on a review of literature and interviews with numerous current and former state budget directors, finance officials, and public administration professors specializing in state and local government budgeting.

Budget Transparency Increases Accountability in State Government
https://www.alec.org/article/budget-transparency-increases-accountability-in-state-government/
This article from the American Legislative Exchange Council examines the benefits of budget transparency and how states are moving to implement reforms.

Restoring State Budget Transparency
https://www.commonwealthfoundation.org/policyblog/detail/restoring-state-budget-transparency
Rebecca Whalen and Jessica Barnett of the Commonwealth Foundation discuss Pennsylvania’s need for budget transparency and what policymakers can do to achieve a more open budget and spending processes.

Pennsylvania Portal Offers ‘Unprecedented’ View of State Spending
https://statescoop.com/pennsylvania-portal-offers-unprecedented-view-of-state-spending
Jason Shueh of State Scoop examines Pennsylvania’s new Transparency Portal website and how it has developed and expanded over time.

Improving State Fiscal Transparency
https://www.yorkdispatch.com/story/opinion/2018/05/14/oped-improving-state-fiscal-transparency/605093002/
In this editorial, Pennsylvania state Rep. Seth Grove discusses the rationale behind a proposed transparency bill, how it would work, and he explains why budget transparency is important for holding government accountable.

Following the Money 2018
https://uspirgedfund.org/reports/usf/following-money-2018
This analysis from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s eighth evaluation of state transparency websites finds that despite continued improvements in transparency websites, states still have a long way to go in making critical data about state spending truly accessible to the public.

Financial State of the States 2017
https://www.truthinaccounting.org/news/detail/financial-state-of-the-states-2-2
In this annual study, Truth in Accounting analyzes the finances of all 50 state governments and provides detailed background information about new accounting standards, trends across the states, and key findings.

States See the Need for Spending Transparency
https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/states-see-the-need-for-spending-transparency
Sandra Fabry of Americans for Tax Reform examines several state efforts to implement legislation that would mandate the creation of comprehensive databases detailing government expenditures in a clear and consistent format that is accessible to all taxpayers.

Why Is Truthful, Timely, and Transparent Financial Data Important?
https://www.truthinaccounting.org/news/detail/why-is-truthful-timely-and-transparent-financial-data-important-details
This article from Truth in Accounting discusses the importance of accurate, transparent, and clear reporting of government financial data. “States’ efforts to begin digging out from their current financial holes must start with honest government accounting. Only then can responsible alternatives to place the state on solid financial footing be developed and debated. An informed electorate is essential to a democratic system of government, and citizens have not received the financial information needed to be knowledgeable participants in their governments,” the authors wrote.

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state, or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Charlie Katebi, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at ckatebi@heartland.org or 312/377-4000.

Article Tags
Regulation
Author
Matthew Glans joined the staff of The Heartland Institute in November 2007 as legislative specialist for insurance and finance. In 2012, Glans was named senior policy analyst.
mglans@heartland.org @HeartlandGR