Legislative secrecy

It’s been true for years. When push comes to shove in the Maine Legislature, the public’s right to be informed about and to participate in the legislative process takes a back seat to expediency. The most significant – and usually most controversial – bills of every session remained bogged down in committee until the late going. Those that received a public hearing early in the session may bear little, if any, resemblance to the original proposal. But the public has no further opportunity to weigh in. And always there are bills – some of great consequence – that make their first appearance in the waning days of the session. In such cases, public hearings – if held at all – take place with little, if any, adequate notification.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act (FOAA), now 40 years old, asserts that “it is the intent of the Legislature that their actions be taken openly” and establishes the circumstances under which officials of government, at all levels, are authorized to meet in secret. But because statutory consequences for violating the law are minimal, its requirements for open deliberation frequently are ignored.

Little, if anything, facing any session of the Legislature is of greater import than the state budget. That budget falls under the purview of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations and the leaders of both the House and the Senate. It always is controversial and always is among the last matters to be considered in any session. This year has been no exception and, as has been disclosed by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, much of the committee discussion surrounding the budget has been taking place behind closed doors. Committee members have decided, in the words of one of its members, that because the budget matters are “sensitive,” there is sufficient justification to exclude the public from those discussions.

Truth be known, the “sensitivity” involved has much more to do with the desire of those officials to avoid the accountability that comes with open public discussion. Many years ago, President Harry S. Truman told his White House staff, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” That same admonition should apply to members of the Appropriations Committee.

In 1975, the Maine Legislature decided, for good reason, that “public proceedings exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business” and should be conducted openly, except in defined circumstances. A legislator’s lack of courage or reluctance to be held accountable is not among those defined circumstances.

As Maine attorney Sigmund Schutz, an expert on the state’s FOAA, observed last week, “the Legislature meets on public property while being paid by the public to discuss public business.”

Mainers eventually will know the final outcome of the budget process. But the reasoning that ultimately results in a decision often is every bit as important as the decision itself. A building block of democracy is the right of every citizen to participate. Government, in a democracy, was never meant to be an easy process. By shrouding their deliberations in secrecy, legislators are denying that right of participation to the very people they serve. That is wrong, and they know it.

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