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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Charlie Arlinghaus- Public officials no longer keep their own scorecards


In just 20 years, we've moved from a political culture in which elites preferred that the peasants trust them to do the right thing to one of transparency in which there is a widespread presumption that every file and process should be open and accessible to anyone.

Twenty years ago, Vinnie Palumbo, the Republican majority leader of the state House of Representatives, famously opposed adopting a legislative ethics system by saying that everyone in the House was a gentleman, and "gentlemen keep their own scorecards." For a time, he was right. Neither gentlemen nor gentlewomen in the Legislature were subject to plebian ethics rules. The people's business was at least an arm's length away from the people, and ethics was based on the honor system.

But then, convicted of seven counts of bank fraud and three of tax evasion, Rep. Palumbo went off to spend 15 months in federal prison. His snobby witticism became the sarcastic rallying cry of those who were more inclined to the Reagan philosophy of "trust but verify."

As New Hampshire entered the Internet age, a bias toward more open government developed. Even as political watchers forgo and open government became the watchword.

Twenty years ago, representatives were constantly reminded that recorded votes cost money and they should refrain as much as possible from putting everyone on record, ostensibly because it cost too much (printing costs, largely). Today, roll call votes are commonplace and accepted.

In some states, outside groups have to post votes and compile voting records. In New Hampshire, roll call votes are posted often by the afternoon of the morning vote. There is also a database searchable by elected official. Today, the scorecard is kept and maintained on the Internet, not in the hip pocket of canary yellow golf pants.

This presumption for disclosure colors the thinking on many of the summer's thorny issues. As the state closes its books on the fiscal year that ended in June, there are a number of unresolved issues, such as the Joint Underwriting Association lawsuit, which put holes in the budget. The state's numbers chief, Linda Hodgdon, explained to Union Leader reporter Tom Fahey that the key to maintaining confidence is to completely disclose the situation. Hodgdon is commissioner of Administrative Services, which for more than a decade has completely disclosed the state's revenue picture each and every month in good times and bad.

Two recent complaints over state contract awards are unresolved, but they are signs of the transparent culture. When the transportation commissioner decided against putting a railroad contract out to bid and instead renewed it for a railroad owned by a state representative who sits on the appropriations committee, the Executive Council was forced to ask for an investigation.

An associate attorney general found no criminal conduct, but referred the matter to the Legislative Ethics Committee. The AG did not issue a report, but open government has progressed to the point where the entire file will be made public (and organizations like mine will put it online) so people can follow all the details and reach their own conclusions.

Similarly, some apparent irregularities in the process of awarding a $31 million contract for an online lottery have generated heated allegations between a vendor and the attorney general. Decades ago, a few inches in a column on state government was all most of us might expect to see. Today, we all anticipate that every document, including the report of the contract review panel, will be made public and put online.

In each case, someone will still be annoyed, and some of us may disagree with the final ruling. Yet we will all be able to see everything and read everything that led to the final decision. What the reporter saw or the Executive Council saw, we expect to see, too -- no hidden contracts or reviews.

Even in recent years, contracts were a way to hide government from the public and sometimes from the Legislature. In times of hiring and equipment freezes, contract spending details were (and still are) out of sight so quasi-employees could escape the scrutiny regular state employees did: There's a freeze on, so we'll have to pay for that with contract money. It's time to break down that wall.

Today, the people expect to know every dollar and to be able to review it themselves regardless of the payment mechanism. We trust the decisions made by officials, but we want to verify them. We expect every wall that might shield some government activity from scrutiny to be broken down. Gentlemen keeping their own scorecards seems like the embarrassing joke that it was.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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