BY: TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
State Auditor, JB McCuskey has made transparency in government spending one of his top priorities, starting with his new WVCheckbook website.
SB 474 takes a turn in an entirely different direction, restricting access to information related to government spending. If enacted, this bill would make documents related to the West Virginia Jobs Act, which include actual wages paid to an employee, confidential and not considered public record.
Currently, the press and members of the public are able to use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request information relating to the payroll of government contractors. If this bill is passed, they would no longer be able to do that. Reports on payroll of government contractors and other spending would be submitted to the Legislature, but would not be available to anyone else.
One of the most pressing issues that this would impact is the Road Bond, which was passed last year. The Road Bond includes several standards for employment that the government is responsible for meeting. For example, 75% of the jobs created by the Road Bond are required to be filled by WV residents. If information about contractors’ payroll is not available to the public, it would be very difficult to know if that percentage requirement is being met.
Instead of encouraging accountability by creating knowledge among the public about how their taxes are being used, this bill places the burden of accountability for ensuring that the provisions in the Road Bond are met entirely on the Legislature.
Many proponents of the bill argue that payrolls contain sensitive personal information such as names, addresses and social security numbers of employees, which SB 474 would protect.
It’s important to point out that section 29B-1-4 of the WV State Code already protects private personal information, such as what might be found on a person’s medical records- like an address or social security number, even when documents with this information on them are requested through FOIA.
It’s also worth noting, that this bill doesn’t prevent the Legislature or the joint committee charged with overseeing Road Bond spending from making the reports that they receive from contractors public, should they choose to do so.
Many of West Virginia’s press and media outlets, including the WV Associated Press, have taken a public stance against this bill, arguing that it constitutes a First Amendment violation, as it restricts the freedom of the press to report on how taxpayer dollars are being spent.
The bill passed through the Senate today after a heated discussion. We’re still left wondering what it means to have the State Auditor proclaim that a goal of transparency is the way forward for WV, while legislators vote to make information less accessible to citizens.
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