Mississippi’s government isn’t as secretive as it once was but some lawmakers still seem to prefer to keep folks in the dark.
Consider the lottery bill that is awaiting Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature. In its original form, it would have exempted the quasi-governmental corporation that will set up and oversee the lottery from the Public Records Act and Open Meetings Act.
Bryant wanted that exemption tossed and it was. Eventually. And we commend the governor for taking that stand for transparency in government.
It’s not much of a surprise that the exemption was slipped into the bill. Not all Mississippi elected officials are as big a fan of openness as the governor. The House, for example, allowed very little public discussion of the bill before the vote was taken.
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The Legislature, the body that makes transparency laws, exempts itself from the Open Records Act. It routinely refuses to give the media and the public its emails and other records.
Important bills show up at the 11th hour, giving the people of Mississippi little chance to see them before they are enacted.
This penchant for secrecy is one reason, when pollsters asked Mississippians if they trusted state government, only 26 percent said either all the time or some of the time. It’s one reason the Center for Public Integrity gave Mississippi a D- in 2015.
Secrecy also allows scandals such as the one at the Department of Corrections to fester for years before they’re uncovered.
Mississippi does have a Transparency website and it does offer a lot of information about government spending and contracts. But navigating it isn’t easy. One researcher called it impossible to figure out.
There are signs the state is changing. It tightened its campaign finance laws and ended secret meetings of public hospital boards. New State Auditor Shad White has added a website that puts that agency’s contracts and requests for proposals online for all to see.
We understand there is sometimes a need for secrecy. There are children to protect, criminals to catch and negotiations that best not be carried out in public. We allow some secrecy because we trust our government. But when government takes advantage of our trust and secrecy becomes a knee jerk reaction to every problem, that trust wears thin.
Those in government should never forget who they are working for. They should let the public in on their debates and discussions whenever possible. They should make websites such as Transparency easy and inviting.
They sometimes fall short. But they show signs they get it and are improving.
Every time a lawmaker or other official comes up with a bill, we hope they leave behind those provisions that would keep the people in the dark. Instead, they should allow in a healthy dose of sunshine.