A public records request is seemingly behind the Mississippi state legislature’s speed decision to make even more legislative documents exempt from public records laws.
Mississippi Today asked for copies of the state’s already-signed contract with EdBuild. The nonprofit company was handed $250,000 to begin working on an overhaul of the state’s “Adequate Education Program” [how inspiring!], which determines school funding. Seems like the sort of thing that would be of interest to the public.
The state legislature doesn’t agree its constituents should have any background information on something affecting the schools they send their children to.
Faced with a public records request from Mississippi Today for the state’s contract with EdBuild, a legislative committee voted Tuesday to adopt a new policy mandating that all contracts it approves be confidential.
The House Management Committee, which approves contracts entered into by the House of Representatives, used a voice vote to pass the policy, which states “All contracts entered into by the House Management Committee shall be confidential and shall not be released to any person or entity, except as specifically directed by the House Management Committee only when the committee deems necessary for the execution of the contract.”
Apparently just knowing its money is being spent should be good enough for the state’s residents. All other details are best left in the hands of those deciding how the public’s money will be spent. The public is being thrown a belated bone with a comment period that arrives after the contract has already been approved. Comments at the one-hour meeting are limited to three minutes each and commenters will have zero information work with.
This wasn’t the vote the committee was supposed to engage in. The session in which the new restriction was passed was originally supposed to be used to discuss whether or not the legislature would release the contract to Mississippi Today. Rather than decide the fate of a single set of documents, the legislature granted themselves a broad exception to public records law.
In Mississippi, that’s something the legislature is allowed to do.
Before the policy was passed, the Legislature essentially controlled its own rules about which records are public and which are not. The Mississippi Public Records Law says nothing in the law “shall be construed as denying the Legislature the right to determine the rules of its own proceedings and to regulate public access to its records.”
So much for transparency and accountability. Instead, Mississippi residents are asked to blindly trust their representatives. According to one legislator quoted in the piece, the only thing the state’s public records law actually can pry loose from representatives is travel records.
Many legislators seem to prefer an uninformed electorate. This allows them to push their own agendas, rather than those of their constituents. Every few years, an appearance of caring is projected as voters are courted, but as soon as they’re back in office, the only input they appear to want is monetary.
Contract information — especially on awarded contracts — should not be considered a de facto secret. The public deserves to know how its money is being spent. As it stands in Mississippi, the public is only going to be told its money is being spent. Everything else is just none of their business.