Walking on Sunshine

Last week was "Sunshine Week" in the world of the news media, which highlights the efforts to ensure the public enjoys the most free and open access to information about what public officials and the government in general - from the local to the national level - are doing.

Sen. Patrick Leahy wrote an opinion piece which we printed last week that spelled out the ongoing need to continue to press public officialdom for information that in theory, should be public knowledge in the first place. But the complexities of government being what they are, it is sometimes more convenient for some information to be more readily available than others.

For example, just ask a commuter from Fort Lee, N.J., why he or she was tied up in massive traffic jams near the George Washington Bridge last September - who would have imagined that was a result of political gamesmanship instead of the ostensible "traffic study," for instance. Trans parency is a big deal when it comes to how well the government does its job. Those who are called to public service - and it's a noble calling - act in the public's name and are paid by public money; i.e., taxes. So it's perfectly OK to hold them to account.

As Sen. Leahy pointed out, Sunshine Week this year presents a mixed picture. It will probably always be so. On the one hand, the back log of Freedom of Information requests has been reduced, but far too much time goes by before these requests are cleared. Another cause for concern is the growing number of exemptions federal agencies are claiming to get around providing requested information.

Clearly not all information should be provided if it would jeopardize lives or ensnare innocent bystanders in harm's way. However, anything less than that doesn't usually meet the "smell" test.

Which brings us to an example of why Sunshine Week and transparency is vital that's occurring right here in Vermont. Last week, Rep. Cynthia Browning, who represents Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and most of Sunderland, got stonewalled by the Shumlin administration when she sought answers as to why the state's executive branch hadn't, more than a year later, gotten around to providing information on the financing plan which is supposed to lay out how the much touted "Single Payer" health insurance scheme will be paid for. We understand that's a complicated piece of business that requires some thought. But the governor and his team agreed to a deadline of January, 2013 for making that available. That wasn't a typo - that was fourteen months ago. So far, there's still nothing concrete on the table, just more delaying and feet-dragging.

We understand that it's easy to pick ideas apart piece by piece before they are allowed to form a cohesive whole, but a deal should be, at some point, a deal. But this is getting ridiculous, and worse. The lack of clarity around the plan and its financing package is breeding economic uncertainty in a state which cannot afford that.

Rep. Browning has submitted a resolution to force the executive branch to share their draft financing reports with the Legislature. We hope this forces the Governor's hand, but if not, it could be headed for the courts.

It's outrageous that a state representative has to go to these lengths to get information that by law was supposed to be ready more than 14 months ago, but that's the way government works sometimes when the gap between promises and reality gets too broad. And that's why a free press is useful - to make sure this isn't buried so deep no one knows about it.

We'll wish Rep. Browning well in her efforts, and hope the Governor and his team let the sunshine in.


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