Montgomery County Passes Ambitious Open Government Act

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Council has unanimously passed open data legislation which updates and improves the way government information is collected, managed, and published. On a guest post on the Code for America blog, councilmember Hans Riemer writes that the bill:

  • Establishes an open data policy for county government, with the intention of publishing a comprehensive data set for each department
  • Requires creation of an implementation plan as a regulation that must be approved by the Council, to ensure there is no gap between the policy goal and actual implementation
  • Mandates publishing results of public records requests submitted under the Maryland Public Information Act (MPIA), a first for any local government
Montgomery County has nearly one million residents and an annual budget of $3.6 billion. If it were in New York State, it would be the 7th largest county. Montgomery’s open government act will cover many tens (if not hundreds) of datasets and documents, and as such, is an excellent model for cities, counties, and even other states.
Specifically, open government legislation like this would be extremely welcome in New York State. While New York City passed its own open data law earlier this year, there is no statewide equivalent yet. Until we have a state open data law, counties and municipalities in New York State can still harness the information technology revolution by passing their own local legislation modeled on the federal Open Government Directive, the New York City Open Data Law, or even Montgomery County’s Open Data Act.
While we like the entire law, the third bullet point above is arguably the most important: publicly displaying the results of public records requests. Freedom of Information laws are our democracy’s most fundamental transparency tool. By opening this process to the public, governments can reduce duplicate requests, increase overall access to information, and collect metrics about the kinds of government data its constituents want.
The Montgomery County version is actually ahead of the federal model in this regard: the federal FOIA only requires agencies upload frequently-requested documents. One example of this is the FBI’s reading room “The Vault,” but not all FOIA requests are posted. Montgomery deserves recognition for its commitment to open government.

Does New York’s Freedom of Information Law Work?

The Washington Post headline reads: Obama administration struggles to live up to its transparency promise, Post analysis shows. According to the story,

Media organizations and individuals requesting information under the FOIA last year were less likely to receive the material than in 2010 at 10 of the 15 Cabinet-level departments, according to a Washington Post analysis of annual reports of government agencies. The federal government was more likely last year than in 2010 to use the act’s exemptions to refuse information. And the government overall had a bigger backlog of requests at the end of 2011 than at the start, largely because of 30,000 more pending requests to the Department of Homeland Security.

In stark contrast, the NY Times cannot write the same story about the Cuomo administration — whether it’s warranted or not — because nobody knows how many Freedom of Information Law requests New York State agencies receive, how long they take to respond, and how many requests are refused. Unlike the federal Freedom of Information Act, New York State’s otherwise robust Freedom of Information Law does not require agencies to report (or even collect) any information on how many FOIL requests they process every year. The federal FOIA has required federal agencies to publish this information since 1996, but New York has yet to catch up to the federal law’s reporting requirement.

So back to the question at hand, does FOIL itself work in New York? Maybe, maybe not. Who can say? And how do they know?

 

Exposing the secret funders of slimey political ads

NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is proposing new regulations which require charitable groups that engage in $10,000 or more in election spending to reveal their funders. The measure is intended to reduce the flow of anonymous contributions, or “dark money,” flowing from donors through 501c(4) charitable groups in support of political campaigns. Schneiderman’s proposed rules have been applauded by good government groups, including the Brennan Center for Justice. The State of Politics blog quotes Schneiderman:

“There’s no question that since Citizen United was decided in 2010, we have seen an extraordinary increase in the amounts being spent. Frankly a lot of the time when people want to conceal their identity they want to do it because these organizations pay for the worst ads. When you’re paying for the slimiest ad of all time, you probably don’t want your name associated to it.”

Reinvent Albany typically doesn’t focus on voting and political campaigning related issues — which is the priority of many established good government groups we admire —  but we have an avid interest in improving public oversight over New York’s vast universe of charitable organizations. Charities are big business in New York State and city comprise about 18% of the state’s workforce versus 6% jobs nationally.  New York charities have long been abused as sources of political patronage, and have been at the center of some of the states largest corruption scandals. Reinvent Albany has advocated for big improvements in the Attorney Generals charities website, which serves the dual role of helping charities report information, and reporting that information to the public. In the meantime, we welcome the proposed rules as a sensible step towards plugging the holes in campaign finance rules created by the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision.

Unleashing Government Data Using APIs

What is an API?

Application Programming Interfaces let computer programs “talk” to one another and exchange information, so a dataset with an API can be accessed by third-party developers with innovative ideas. For instance:

These are all examples of uses of public APIs, but there are private examples, too. Most notably, Amazon.com uses private APIs between their various internal departments, which makes their operations extensible. There are also hybrid models, with certain information made public and others sequestered for internal use or with specific partners.

Money in Politics in New York: December 7 Edition

Every Friday, the Brennan Center compiles the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag#moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.

Cuomo Outlines List of 10 Priorities: Campaign Finance Reform is No. 2

Governor Cuomo refused to endorse more than two candidates in New York State Assembly and Senate races this year. Now, with the Senate leadership undetermined, he is still unwilling to put his weight behind individual legislators, rather, the Governor is asserting that he will support Senators based on their positions on a list of ten issues he deems to be the most important over the coming year. In a victory for reformers, campaign finance reform is high on the list, along with other progressive initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and changing New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy. It remains to be seen whether the newly emerged Senate coalition composed of Republicans and a breakaway group of 5 Independent Democrats will be responsive to these requests from the Governor, or if they will simply continue the tradition of dysfunction that the New York State Legislature has become well-known for. It is up to the citizens of New York to keep the pressure on their elected officials in order to ensure that public matching for small in-district donations remains a crucial aspect of any campaign finance reform proposal.

 

New York Times Editorial Asks Governor Cuomo to Support Fair Elections

In an excellent editorial, the New York Times urged Governor Cuomo to make New York’s system of electing legislators the fairest and most transparent in the country. The editorial emphasized the need for a public financing mechanism modeled on New York City’s successful small donor matching program, where the first $175 of any donation is matched at a 6-to-1 ratio. According to the New York City Campaign Finance Board, a majority of contributors in City Council elections in recent cycles were giving for the first time, and of those first-time contributors, 83 percent gave $175 or less. Lower limits on individual and corporate contributions are also necessary, along with closing loopholes like unrestricted donations to political party “housekeeping” committees. And given that campaign treasuries can be used for almost anything, including veterinarian bills, pool parties and birthdays, clear rules regarding campaign funds are paramount. As the Times put it, “By setting a national standard for public financing, New York State could go from laggard to leader.”

 

NY Business, Civic and Philanthropic Leaders Insist Governor Cuomo Include Campaign Finance Reform in his State of the State

In addition to the editorial by the New York Times, other New Yorkers are also emphasizing the importance of Fair Elections in the upcoming legislative session. The New York Leadership for Accountable Government (NY LEAD), a bipartisan group of business, civic and philanthropic leaders, sent a letter to Governor Cuomo asking him to make citizen-funded elections a priority in his State of the State Address. “A Fair Elections campaign finance system would encourage voter participation, incentivize diversity among candidates and help curb the corrupting power of big money,” the letter stated.

 

Public Financing of Elections in NYS Would Cost Only $2 per Person

A new study from the Campaign Finance Institute by Professor Michael Malbin concludes that the cost of running a public financing system in New York State would be roughly $40 million, which works out to $2 per New Yorker— not a bad trade considering the millions more the state government wastes in handouts to special interests. Additional taxes are unnecessary; the current revenue stream can simply be redirected towards ensuring our elections are clean and fair. In 2012, 76 percent of the money raised by New York State legislative candidates was from large donors that contributed $1,000 or more. By contrast, only 8 percent came from donors who gave $250 or less. The research evaluated the consequences of implementing a public financing bill (A9885) introduced by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last session. Four alternative scenarios, involving changes in the number of donors and election contests yielded cost estimates from $25 million to $40 million.