BY MICHAEL NOYES
HELENA – Gov. Brian Schweitzer has vetoed a bill that would have set up a public website with information about state finances, including budgets and spending information.
In a letter Tuesday announcing his veto, the Democratic governor said the cost would have been almost $400,000 but would “provide no return on taxpayer investment.” His letter pointed to the amount of information on state finances made public through the Legislative Fiscal Division.
Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, who sponsored House Bill 444, said he believes the actual cost of the website would have been much less, closer to $50,000 or $100,000, and that transparency is the key issue. Burnett said the bill passed on a bipartisan basis and that more than 20 states currently have similar websites to the one he proposed and that Oregon produced theirs with “existing resources.”
“It’s not the money, I do not believe,” Burnett told Montana Watchdog on Wednesday morning. “I think it’s just a resistance to transparency.”
The bill passed a third reading in the House by 75 to 21 and the Senate by 30 to 20.
Schweitzer’s letter said the Legislative Fiscal Division publishes reports about the budget and other fiscal matters.
“If legislators desired to publish more information about Montana’s fiscal affairs, they already have that authority to upload that information on their own website,” he wrote.
Burnett said the claim that information is readily available isn’t backed up by personal experience.
“Many people have not found that to be the case,” Burnett said. “That objection, as a source of his veto, is overridden by actual experience.”
A state transparency website scorecard on the website of the U. S. Public Interest Research Groups, a network of researchers, students, organizers, and advocates across the country, gives Montana a grade of “F.”
Sunshine Review, a website devoted to “bringing state and local government to light,” gives Montana a “B” on their transparency report card, while counties in the state receive a “D.”
In announcing his veto, the governor said there was also a “more practical obstacle.”
“As part of our overall budget settlement, my office reached an agreement with the Speaker of the House (Mike Milburn, R-Cascade) and the President of the Senate (Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo) that this bill would not receive funding.”
Milburn and Peterson could not be immediately reached for comment.
Burnett said transparency will continue to lag until a measure similar to his bill is enacted.
“Until we get passage of such a thing obtaining information will be slow and difficult and expensive and unsatisfactory, particularly in relation to other peer states who have done this…and are willingly providing information to their residents.”
To read the full bill click here.