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In Delaware We Trust?

From: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Editor, A Better Delaware Transparency is concept that connotes openness, absence of opacity, and lifting of the veil of secrecy. In democratic governance, a premium is placed on transparency in good governance which boosts public trust and participation of its citizens.

Delaware has a history of low ratings in transparency and accountability in its governance and it appears little has changed.  Limited fiscal transparency, political maneuvers and minimal agency oversight has kept citizens, and even some of its legislators in the dark.

In 2016, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund ranked Delaware’s fiscal transparency as a C+ (in the bottom 10 states) when it comes to providing online access to government spending data. In 2019, Delaware moved back even further, being assigned a D+ rating.

Lack of transparency and accountability are most apparent in Delaware’s annual state budget allocation processes, some of which are a mystery. According to the Caesar Rodney Institute, Delaware is expected to spend approximately $12.5 billion in the next fiscal year despite the General Fund Budget being approximately $4.8 billion with an additional $221 million in a separate one-time use fund. To put total government spending into perspective, that equates to more than $12,500 per Delawarean and nearly $50,000 for the average household.

This spare $7+ billion (in addition to the $4.8 General Budget) comes from a “shadow budget” categorized  on the annual budget as Special Funds. Over the past decade, more than 60 percent of Delaware’s government spending has come from Special Funds. Why does this matter? The General Fund Budget goes through at least six weeks of a public legislative process and is recorded by the Office of Management and Budget in a detailed report, keeping the government accountable to this budget.

Special Funds however are not held to the same standards and are only evaluated by the Clearing House Committee that consists of six members of the General Assembly, the Controller General (who works for the General Assembly), and three members of the Executive Branch. Information about the Committee is difficult to find on the State website and information on it has not been updated since 2015. From what can be found, very few legislators attend and send staffers to committee meetings in their stead. These meetings are closed to the public.

A press release by  State Auditor Kathy McGuinness  revealed that in 2015, Delaware received an F rating and was ranked  48th in the nation in a State Integrity Investigation by Global Integrity. Three years later, the state has only increased that initial F to a D.  More proof that Delaware’s government is lacking it in transparency and inadequate government ethics rules.

On a positive note, State Auditor  McGuinness announced in late May that her office will be working with county and local governments, in addition to school districts to help them  show where money from their share of the American Rescue Plan has been dedicated to or spent on. The statewide initiative, is dubbed Project: Gray Fox .

Public knowledge about what Government officials do is essential in maintaining public trust.

On June 3, 2021, Senator Kyle Evans Gay introduced SB 155, an act to amend the Freedom of Information Act, (FOIA). Senate Bill 155 would allow government agencies to deny FOIA requests if state officials believe the requests are” unreasonably broad”, “unduly burdensome”, “abusive”, or “intended to disrupt the essential functions of the public body”. There is no clear definition of the bills key terms and could easily be abused by state officials looking to avoid self-damaging data.

According to the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, if enacted, the amendment would make Delaware one of the most restrictive states – if not the most restrictive – for public requests for information. The justification for the new fees and restrictions was to save the time and effort in processing large requests unrelated to the public’s interest – but who determines what information is in the public’s interest?

FOIA laws have often been instrumental in checking governmental power and uncovering instances of abuse, neglect, and inefficiency. Under Governor Carney’s State of Emergency Orders, the Delaware General Assembly were essentially unavailable to the public for more than 450 days during the COVID-19 pandemic. A proposal to strengthen FOIA is being sponsored by Rep. Shupe. House Bill 203  that would according to Shupe, “Prohibit the governor from suspending FOIA during a State of Emergency unless he or she was able to demonstrate that complying with the act would prevent, hinder, or delay state action needed to cope with the crisis.”

Transparency should not be about politics; it should be about governing. People from across the political spectrum should agree that government must be open, transparent, and responsive. And there are reasons why, in a democracy, we must demand to know what our lawmakers are up to.