Olson: Bill that would allow cities to draft budgets in secret won't get hearing
A controversial bill to allow cities to draft their budgets in secret won't get a hearing this session, says Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji,.
"We're not giving it a hearing in the Senate," Olson, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Data Practices, said Friday in a telephone interview.
The bill, authored by Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, would allow "budget proposals, preliminary drafts, and other preliminary discussions created at the direction of the mayor or governing body in the process of the development of final city budgets that are created, collected, or maintained by a city" to be protected non-public data."
The bill is supported by the League of Minnesota Cities, to which Bemidji is a member.
Moua, as chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, oversees Olson's subcommittee, but agrees with Olson's decision, the Bemidji Democrat said.
"Even though I chair the data practices subcommittee, she outranks me," Olson said. "If she wanted the bill heard, it would be heard."
LMC had approached Olson to author the bill and she declined, then the LMC asked Moua.
"Sen. Moua felt she should at least introduce the bill, since the cities are a pretty large constituency and they wanted to have it out there for consideration," Olson said.
Olson said she and Moua discussed the bill after she had introduced it. "We had a long conversation about it and I guess we both felt that moving in that direction was really contrary to what the Senate's doing with respect to, at the state level at the executive branch, making department budget recommendations public."
The Senate's budget reform bill, S.F. 2, passed both the House an d the Senate last session only to be vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
"Essentially what that bill does is to require the state to have the same kind of transparency that local governments are required to have right now," said Olson.
In a column on today's Opinion Page, LMC Executive Director Jim Miller argues that the state now is not required to make public their preliminary drafts or discussion notes about budget preparation.
"State employees and elected officials are allowed to brainstorm and submit their budget ideas without fear of being publicly humiliated or associated with a controversial idea submitted for brainstorming purposes only," Miller wrote.
Moua's bill would "provide city staff the opportunity to freely discuss and brainstorm options early in the city budget-planning process, and create a comfortable forum for the exchange of initial ideas and suggestions," said Miller.
Moua "could understand why the cities would argue that they should have the same benefit the state has in terms of privacy," Olson said, "but on the other hand, we're trying to put more sunshine in the law as far as the state budgeting process."
Last week, journalists and others commemorated Sunshine Week, which promotes open government and easy access to public government documents.
"I think we both agree that transparency should be there," Olson said. "This conversation, if nothing else, highlights S.F. 2 and the need for transparency throughout local and state government."
Says Olson, "We're not expecting to move that bill (Moua's) forward on the Senate side."
There are examples, some tragic, where transparency would have been best, she said, noting that the Department of Health withheld information for more than a year which affected the health of miners on the Iron Range.
"Certainly in the Department of Transportation there are (budget) recommendations that directly relate to the public safety," she said. "It's true in law enforcement, in the Department of Health, throughout different departments."
LMC's Miller says the intended goal of the bill isn't to suppress public data.
The intended goal is the "establishment of a process to allow local government officials opportunities to creatively brainstorm budget-balancing solutions," Miller said. "... the bill would simply permit city governments the same budget-planning discretion as the state."
"Whether it's a budgeting recommendation or whether it's other kinds of recommendations, when someone who is a public employee makes a recommendation based on what they think is in the public's best interest, seems to me the public should have a right to that information," Olson said.
Anyone in government from the governor to a city "should be willing to the public for making the tough choices that sometimes do have to be made between what's available in the budget and what recommendations are being made," she said.
But when that information is withheld, the public doesn't know of the difficult choices having to be made, Olson said.