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Transparency helps public trust officials

Transparency in our elections, our government, and our democracy doesn’t just happen. It’s hard work. It takes funding. It needs staff. Perhaps most of all, it takes an understanding that the value of transparency can’t be measured as an immediate return on investment.

Transparency can nurture a culture of trust in our elected representatives, further an understanding that government serves important functions for citizens, and provide a measure of accountability. When the flow of information about our elections, our government, and our democracy is curtailed, we’re nurturing a culture of mistrust and cynicism.

Sadly, a budget subcommittee in Montana did just that recently when it took aim at the state political practices commissioner’s office — the office that educates candidates about how to lawfully campaign, and helps them understand the laws governing campaign finances and ethical expectations. The office that compiles campaign disclosure reports from hundreds of candidates each election cycle, and asks candidates to fill out forms properly and in a timely manner. The office that informs the press and public about who is funding the campaigns of the candidates who, if elected, will spend taxpayer money. The office where citizen accountability interests are nurtured.

For doing this important job, for creating “some tremendous efficiencies,” as one committee member noted, the subcommittee voted to cut the in-house attorney who helped eliminate a case backlog, and reduce the salary of the commissioner by 23 percent. The vote was along party lines.

Nurturing the public’s interest in transparency and accountability was trumped by party politics.

Sadly, what happened in Montana isn’t an anomaly. In state after state, lawmakers are targeting disclosure agencies.

In the face of tight budgets, it’s easy for lawmakers to argue for cutting ethics and disclosure commissions. But the citizenry should be alarmed when politics trumps the public’s right to meaningful information about its elected representatives and who supports their campaigns. The public should be outraged when lawmakers directly attack transparency, for with no transparency there can be no accountability.

By Edwin Bender, Executive Director

National Institute on Money in State Politics

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