The phones never stop ringing at the Internal Revenue Service. The office manager massages his temple with one hand and picks up a blaring receiver with the other. He is greeted with a series of personal identification numbers as the prelude to a pitch.
“I wanted to throw you a bone,” the caller says. “I know you’re all overtaxed, heh heh, and I wanted to let you know that I’ve double- and triple-checked the numbers, so there’s no reason to review my taxes this year. Just send the refund to the usual place. Thanks. Bye.”
The office manager stares at the handset that has gone mercifully silent. He places it back on the hook and adds a note to the caller’s file. In red ink he scrawls, “Audit this guy.”
Those who seek to avoid scrutiny deserve to have their actions and motives questioned.
Something similar is going on in the Wyoming Legislature. House Bills 146 and 201 are looking to reduce the information included in public notices and allow governments to publish public notices on their own websites instead of in local newspapers. If passed in their current form, they would reduce government transparency, decrease public access, increase the costs borne by taxpayers, and make it easier for the corrupt to hide their misdeeds.
— WHAT’S IN A NAME? HB 146 would allow cities and counties to remove the names of public employees and elected officials from annual salary publications. Printing the names along with salaries and positions provides important context.
Seeing that two nameless employees with the same job title receive the same salary may not raise any red flags. Add a face into the equation, however, and you may see that the worker who puts in unpaid overtime is on equal financial footing as the one who takes extended weekends. Having more detailed information makes it easier to identify conflicts of interest, pay discrepancies and taxpayer waste.
Instead of scaling back what is reported once a year, it would be better to provide more information, such as health insurance, retirement, and other benefits provided as compensation. The devil is in the details, and publishing them gives him fewer places to hide.
— PUTTING IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE: Each year, governments select a newspaper of record to publish their legals. They accept the responsibility to print the information for public consumption (and usually post it online as well) and make sure the government fulfills its duties.
Switching to self-publishing — the intent of HB 201 — would limit the information’s reach. Newspapers boast greater audiences compared to government websites. In addition, internet access isn’t universal. Some aren’t connected due to financial or geographic limitations, especially in rural areas, and would be shut out.
Then there’s the serendipity factor. Casual newspaper readers are exposed to more information because they’ll take the time to read unanticipated stories. On the internet, most searches are made to find specific information, and anything beyond those parameters is ignored. The first approach allows readers’ understanding to expand in unexpected ways, and the second has an assumption of knowledge, where facts must be established before one can advance. Ignorance is more common in the latter approach, because if you don’t know to look for it, you probably won’t find it.
— TO COUNT THE COST: Providing copies of government records, even digital ones, requires time and money. This has been a consistent message for years as those making Freedom of Information Act requests have been charged for the work to compile and reproduce the data. Delays in complying are not uncommon in Wyoming, and have even stretched on for years.
Budgets and departments are already squeezed, and adding the responsibilities of timely publication will require more workers and hours to be devoted to this task. Other priorities and programs will need to be delayed to meet this new mandate.
That doesn’t include the upgrades required to create secure websites that will make sure postings are safe from tampering. The printed word is easier to defend against vandals. Digital archives are much more susceptible to alteration, and their changes are harder to detect. The proposed system will put a drain on the government, create a less-efficient model than the one in place, and shift jobs from the private sector of newspapers to the government sphere. Is that really how we want to spend taxpayer money?
— PUTTING FOXES ON HENHOUSE DUTY: It would be nice to live in a world where the IRS only sent out refunds, but audits provide incentive for the wavering and punishment for the deceitful. The existing publication provisions in Wyoming law offer similar reinforcement, and removing them weakens our system of checks and balances.
One person can do a lot of damage. It’s already hard enough to police wrongdoing when there’s a paper trail. Imagine how much harder it will be to discern and convict corruption when the unscrupulous have unrestricted power to alter or destroy online evidence. Newspapers provide independent, third-party confirmation on behalf of the public trust. They have an investment in this watchdog role, because their long-term survival depends on being accurate, trustworthy and reliable.
“Who benefits?” is the question we ask when we see legislation like this. The answer obviously isn’t the public, which will see less information, diminished access, diverted tax dollars, and more conducive conditions for crime and coverups. Instead, it seems to be crafted to aid those who are not acting in good faith, but would rather hide their moves in the shadows.
The standard for our leaders is very strict and unforgiving. If you can’t stand scrutiny, find another job; one that doesn’t rely on public funding. We deserve representatives who don’t sweat in the spotlight. Speaking out sends a message, as does remaining silent. We invite our elected leaders to show they can take the heat by taking a public stand against proposals that limit accessibility and accountability. We look forward to reading your letters to the editor.