Saturday, April 23, 2011

Public record laws, here today, gone tomorrow

As the Legislature bears down towards the end, many surprises can happen quickly and without notice, one of those is fast moving deletion of open records law.

Until about 35 years ago, the public never had access to public data that we have access to now.  Such things as arrest records, memos that detail why elected officials raised your taxes, detailed information how a city decides to take property, or how a school district decides on the goals of teaching your children were generally non existent for the people.

Beginning in the mid sixties, the Federal Government and state governments began to pass laws that gave people the right to access public data.  In Minnesota, we started the process in the mid seventies to what has now become the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act.

Two main concepts of the Data Practices Act is all government data is public, unless classified as being not public, and two, the Legislature decides what is not public.  Rather than have some decision by the court or single bureaucrat determine what is public or not, the people's elected officials decide.

But, access to public data can disappear at the Legislature.  How is this done?  It is done through the legislative process of passing legislation.

For example, the amendment that I have fought against for the last 3 years that makes private, all e-mail addresses of public employees(which are now public) unless you know their name.  So if you want to contact the Director of Public Works about the pothole that needs fixin you would need to know the name before you get their public e-mail address.

Another example,  for thirty years or more the Department of Natural Resources license data was public.  Many open government advocates thought at a conference committee two years ago a proposal to make all DNR license private would not become law based upon conversation with key legislators. Lo and behold after the conference committee bill was signed, the provision to make the data private was in the bill.

There are not many people who follow open government issues consistently.  There is the group or individual who comes to the Legislature on a specific issue or two, but there is not continuous monitoring.  It is also harder for the few people and individuals who do it on a regular basis.  Many times if there is no one at a hearing that raises an objection when an amendment is presented that makes public data secret, the amendment will get on the bill.  Silence is taken as acquiesce, other words no objection.

In the next few weeks at the Legislature, there will be attempts to make public data secret, put up barriers to public data, exempt groups from open meeting laws, and in my opinion, ultimately makes government less accountable and transparent for you and me.

Personal Note
If interested to follow what is happening on open government issues at the Legislature until it adjourns follow me on twitter @richneumeister or  It is my intention to use the new tools I have learned in the past six months to share with you what's a happening.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Compromise is not a dirty word.

When one Google's the above title you get a lot of hits from prayer's to compromise, to how a % of people are willing to vote for elected officials who do it, to U-2 recommending compromise in their song, Sunday Bloody Sunday.

It is not a Open Secret that compromise is essential to avoid a shutdown of state government.  Hopefully, the responsible parties will do their part and involve the public.

To help our leaders, I would like to give encouragement for compromise.

The song, "Bend a Little My Way" is my contribution.  Listen to the words, hope they give inspiration.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Unfizzling the Failed Promise of The Legacy Amendment

Several months ago I was critical on the failure of government entities to show more transparency and accountability as to how the Legacy Amendment was being implemented.  The posting was based on an informal survey I did, discussions I had with people, and my observations.  A lot as changed since then.

First of all, a person has taken a keen interest in accountability and transparency of how the Legacy monies are being spent, Representative Dean Urdahl, Chair of House Legacy Funding Division.  He took the initiative to introduce a bill, HF1061, the bill has grown from one page to many because it has been amended to include the Legacy monies bill.  Article 5 of the bill is where my eye is on.

Article 5 includes the original part of HF1061, but also includes other proposals to bring sunshine and answerability to the Legacy process. That section does several things:

1.Sets up a uniform reporting process for how the Legacy Funds are being expended and meeting the requirements set by law.

2.To clearly report the agencies and entities acting as fiscal agents or administers the funds.

3.Names, qualifications, and any potential conflict of interest of people who are responsible for the governing body and grant making advisory boards who are involved in awarding Legacy grants
4.To place on the agency or entity that is involved in receiving or administering Legacy Funds the Minnesota Legacy logo on their homepage of their website.

5.The Legacy logo is then linked to the Minnesota Legislature Legacy Website and also specific contact information for that agency or entity if a person wants detailed data of Legacy involvement such as for example, specific proposal documents and proposals that were denied.

Since a hearing took place last week and will continue after the Legislature comes back from its break it is important for us to continue to monitor and involve ourselves how Article 5 is developed.  No companion bill has been introduced on the Senate side.  I have spoken with Senator Ingebrigtsen, Chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources, he stated he's for accountability and transparency of the Legacy Funds.

The post which I originally did on the Legacy Funds brought some comments in person and to the posting.  One comment was by John Curry who stated there is transparency for the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council which recommends millions of dollars.  I also noted to Legislators that the Minnesota Historical Society is an example of how Legacy dollars are being spent.

In a post I responded to conflict of interest issue reported by the Star Tribune with Lessard-Sams. I got feedback on how it is not transparent enough for the public to oversee possible conflicts of interests with the administration and granting of Legacy Funds.

The Minnesota Legislature gave us the great opportunity to vote on an amendment to help fund initiatives to  make our state a greater place for us to live culturally, environmentally, and to improve upon our natural resources.  Over the life of the amendment there will be at least $5 billion or more for the effort.

For the people to keep track of who, what, where, and when of the Legacy Funds is an important duty and responsibility we look to ourselves to do.  No government can do anything except through ourselves.

HF1061 provides basic tools for us to bring into action the words, accountability and transparency, then there will be the beginning of truly vigilant oversight of the Legacy Amendment.


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Minnesota Legislature cuts nose to smell government wrong

The Minnesota Legislature is cutting off its nose with drastic cuts proposed to the Office of Legislative Auditor's.(OLA)  Many Minnesotans do not not know about the OLA and what it does.  It is the investigative and the watchdog arm of the Legislature.  In other words, it is your investigative and watchdog arm.

The people of Minnesota have relied upon the OLA to go through state programs to see how effective they are  and to see that our tax money is being spent wisely.  The Legislative Auditor does investigations such as the Metro Gang Strike Force in 2009.  Recently the Legislative Auditor just released a major report on the civil commitment of sex offenders.  Many other reports that we and the Legislature use for effective oversight, accountability, and to make sure public resources(evaluations and audits) are not in violation of the laws of Minnesota.

The Senate has called for a 15% cut of the OLA budget which will be a loss of 8 auditors, on top of a loss of 20 auditor staff over the last decade.  While government has grown and become more complicated..  The House calls for a 10% reduction.

How can the Legislature effectively oversee, watch, and control government without knowledge and information?  I am confused with the goals of the new majority in the House and Senate who state goals of efficient government, to control government, and to have greater accountability, but then they propose cutting the very tools to help achieve those goals.

 What the cuts will mean are as follows:

Less evaluation of programs and their performances.
Reduced efforts to detect and prevent poor administration, waste, and abuse.
Lacking of qualified information for change of laws or new ones.
Deficient in ability to detect, prevent, and investigate illegal conduct.
Declining data and information to improve efficiency and effectiveness of government.

There are other ramifications, but the point is made.

The Legislature, directly elected by the people, to be the watchers of our money and our interests are certainly doing great harm in their ability to that.  That harm is cutting the Office of Legislative Auditor.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Our tax return data going to IBM? Will we be profiled by the Revenue Department?

In both the House and Senate Government Finance bills there is a provision of law that could allow our personal income tax data to go to third parties for a process called tax analytics(Senate-Article 3 Section 47) and another provision(House-Article 3 Section 58) which will put a score rating on the 3.7 million taxpayers of Minnesota, in other words to be profiled.  Each provision is directed to achieve better tax compliance of individuals and business.  The Senate provision may also do profiling and scoring of all Minnesota taxpayers.

Two different approaches by each body.  Both provisions introduced as bills, but never went to the appropriate committees for public hearings as it relates to privacy, due process, and security for the most intimate of our personal data, our financial information.

The House provision is a combination of using data bases, then goes through a process to evaluate and score each individual who files.  Based on testimony through the committee process no data would leave the Revenue Department.  What the request for proposal would do is get a software which may be within the Revenue Department to analyze us, to gather financial intelligence on us from possible data bases and other sources, and then score us, rank us, which the government then would use to act on.  I wonder if this version becomes law will we be able to see our financial score/dossier?  A company called SAS Institute appears to have been consulted with the House proposal.  They also testified on the bill.

The Senate version goes through a request for proposal process to where our tax data it seems would go to a third party for analysis.  What is unique with this proposal is that it has a proof of concept idea.  Basically, it means that the idea of analysis will be done on a limited basis to see if it works.  If it does work and gives savings to the state, the Commissioner of Revenue it seems is bound by law to set up this profiling system of us.  I shared some concerns with Sen. Limmer, he did a couple of amendments that required special attention to privacy issues.  IBM has been involved in helping the Senate version go through the process.  There were questions by Senators throughout the committee process about the role of IBM as it relates to the bill.

The bottom line is that both of these proposals did not go to the appropriate committees for venting on privacy and due process concerns.  Each proposal presents issues of profiling and surveillance of taxpayers, equity, equal treatment, accountability and transparency, and oversight.   Both proposals are being sold to be used and operated to enforce compliance of our state tax laws.  Both proposals affect the collection, use, and dissemination of our tax information.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

MnDot beginning to monitor your mileage and driving for taxes

In a provision tucked in the Omnibus Transportation bill, Article 1, section 3, in 2007,  the Minnesota Legislature approved $5 million for a pilot project for a future replacement for the gas tax.  That pilot project is now being implemented by MnDot.

MnDot and other state agencies are finding its revenue stream short of its funding.  With the gas tax, a major source of revenue has been declining based on the increase of gas prices and the change in driving habits and purchases of vehicles.

What the Legislature approved is basically to install a sophisticated GPS tracker to allow MnDot and maybe the Revenue Department to track where you drive and how often for tax purposes.

There has been legislation introduced by Rep. Beard that puts the "MnDot Guide Star IntelliDrive-Mileage Based User Program" project into action by classifying data collected for this program either private or nonpublic.

This legislation protects the data from public access, but may not necessarily from other government and state agencies.  Very personal data, as to where you go, what you may be doing, when, how you got there, are among the details and inferences that could be gotten.  Law enforcement entities among others would like to have this data for their own purposes.

Is the proposed legislation enough for the protection of this kind of data?  No

There can be tighter protection/guidelines and a specific section for how law enforcement can get access to this kind of data.

The idea of mileage based revenue has been on the radar and supported by people who are GOP and DFL, locally and nationally.  Recently, a Congressional Budget Office report even stated mileage based revenue as a "practical option."

Brought to my attention an item which I missed in the post.  I missed the fact the MnDot mileage based revenue project relies on volunteers for the pilot project.

After posting, there was editing/clarifying of last paragraph.