On the record: Hassan says efficiency ideas still none of the public’s business

Last modified: 3/1/2015 1:02:45 AM
One of the big ideas in Gov. Maggie Hassan’s $11.5 billion state budget is to create a new executive position charged with making government more efficient.

A good place for this new cost-saver to start would be with the ideas state department heads have already offered to save government money.

So what are those ideas?

Hassan still isn’t saying.

Before her budget was made public, Hassan and her lawyers denied three public records requests for documents sent to her office from state department heads outlining ideas to make their agencies more efficient and effective.

Back in December, she claimed they were draft documents and didn’t have to be released. But even now, after her budget has been made public, she maintains they are beyond the public’s right to know.

“There are still things that are sensitive that involve information about individuals – that could impact particular jobs – that are in some of those drafts,” Hassan said during a meeting with the Monitor’s editorial board last week. And just because she didn’t take action now doesn’t mean some of those ideas might come back up at another time, she said.

So let’s be clear: a state worker’s fear that his or her job would become expendable overrides your access to information from the heads of our state agencies. Last time we checked, there was no such trump card in the state’s public information laws.

The issue came up again because it was the first time we had the chance to hear from Hassan directly, in her own words, as opposed to through letters from lawyers.

During the hourlong conversation on a wide variety of topics, Hassan touted her plan to hire a new chief operating officer.

“Part of the vision that is very, very important to me and I think very important to the people of New Hampshire is that we continue to innovate state government to stretch taxpayer dollars as far as we can and to improve service throughout state government,” Hassan said. “We need somebody who is focused every day, reaching across state government, collecting data, analyzing that data and then determining how we can innovate and be better and move forward.”

So we asked: Since regular folks know how to manage their own household budgets, why not let them look at some of the information on how to make their government more efficient?

“I think it is really important to have open and transparent government and I think it is very important for people to participate fully in the process,” Hassan said. “I also have to make sure that I can, and others can, get candid information in order to inform our own decision-making process.”

That candid information Hassan is talking about is the justification behind her claim of executive privilege, a legal assertion that the governor can keep certain government information private.

One example Hassan cited as a reason to play keep-away with government information was her plan to consolidate staff at some state licensing boards. It made sense to have some of those back room functions handled more centrally, instead of having a number of people doing similar tasks, she said.

“Those proposals affect a lot of people in state government,” Hassan said.

So before she delivered her budget address earlier this month, she said she had a conference call with people “who otherwise might think they were being laid off.”

That might show political smarts, but workers’ concerns still don’t trump the Right to Know law.

Hassan even went one step beyond denying the Monitor’s requests, we have now learned after filing other Right to Know requests to state departments. Hassan’s staff sent a memo to all state departments warning them if they were asked for the efficiency proposals to refer all requests to her office.

That’s hardly transparent. That’s actively blocking the release of information.

It was also an important move legally, because the state departments are subject to the Right to Know law, and can’t claim executive privilege.

Hassan, and governors before her, have maintained they are not required to follow to the state’s Right to Know law. But that doesn’t mean the governor’s office is exempt from providing public information.

The attorney general’s office said the governor’s office falls under the Bill of Rights in the state Constitution, which says government “should be open, accessible, accountable and responsive. To that end, the public’s right of access to governmental proceedings and records shall not be unreasonably restricted.”

State Sen. Jeanie Forrester has offered a bill (SB 205) making its way through the Legislature that would specifically add the governor’s office under the Right to Know law.

So why would Hassan fight so hard to keep those ideas secret? We can only speculate.

Politically, it might make sense to stay silent.

If one commissioner suggested having state employees pay a greater share of their benefits, or wanted to convert some full-time positions to part-time jobs to save money, and Hassan ignored that proposal, it could become a political tool against her.

But that’s the cost of politics.

“If the agencies make proposals but they never see the light of day because the governor doesn’t adopt them for one reason or another, well that’s the kind of information the public ought to know about it,” said Bill Chapman, the Monitor’s attorney who commented in December as an expert on the Right to Know law.

And that’s tough logic to argue with.

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