CPI Gives Montana “F” Grade in Public Access to Information

The left-leaning Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released the results of its 2015 “State Integrity Investigation” earlier this week. No state fared better than a C- minus grade, and, while Montana manged to rank in the top half of states in its overall integrity score, the state pulled a solid “F” grade on public access  to information.

Despite clear right-to-know provisions enshrined in both state code and the state constitution, citizens, journalists, and others continue to have problems getting quick access to information to which they are legally entitled.

“But those trying to dig deeper can meet resistance,” states the CPI report. “Technological infrastructure for many records remains poor, and citizens and journalists denied records can face expensive and long judicial appeals.”

Article II, Section 9 of the Montana Constitution states that “no person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.”

The report did note that steps had been taken in recent years to improve the ease of access to public information in Montana, specifically noting the transparency.mt.gov. website given the greenlight by the administration of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock in 2013, and a Republican sponsored bill — SB 124 — passed during the 2015 legislative session that required the state Boards of Public Education, Investments, Regents, and Teachers and Public Employees Retirement to publish audio or video of their meetings within 24 hours the meeting taking place.

Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to improve access to information. The Montana Policy Institute (MPI), a Helena based free market think tank, fought a years long battle to make state employee pay data publicly accessible. In 2012, it was able to launch its own website containing state employee data. That website was taken down in 2013 after when the state launched transparency.mt.gov.

“MPI’s story highlights a big reason why Montana continues to receive an ‘F’ when it comes to the public’s ability to access information,” MPI Executive Director Brent Mead said in an interview. “For MPI, the state eventually reversed course. For many other citizens they face the same hurdles we did; legal challenges, administrative delays, and interest groups attacking our organization for seeking public information. It is an ongoing problem that is not solved by one website. The state still has a long way to go.”
In June of this year, State Rep. Nicholas Schwaderer (R-Superior) built and launched a website, called “PorkCast.com,” which allows citizens to monitor and search the state’s credit card charges and the checks that are written, and allows them to see which individuals and entities are receiving payments from the state.

“The last two legislative sessions I have seen a strong resistance to building gov’t transparency/accountability websites for people, every time a legislator, including myself, has a transparency website in a bill the fiscal note magically skyrockets,” Schwaderer told Media Trackers in a June interview.I got fed up. Open data isn’t open if it isn’t served to the people in a way that’s useful to them.”

Montana’s overall “state integrity” score was a “D” grade. In the investigation, CPI graded states on 13 different factors, including legislative and executive accountability, ethics enforcement agencies, state budget processes, electoral oversight, and political financing in addition to public access to information.

Despite the seemingly low score for Montana, the state still ranked 21st (in the top half) for state integrity. Only three states — Alaska, California, and Connecticut — received scores in the “C” range. The categories in which Montana fared best were Internal Auditing (C+) and Procurement (C).

Montana’s score dropped from a D+ during from the first CPI State Integrity Report published in 2012. However, due to changes in the methodology for conducting the scores Montana actually improved its state ranking from 30th to 21st.