Sunshine Week: Government Transparency

New action needed to get government contractors out of the shadows

As a part of Sunshine Week, a national initiative to promote open government and the freedom of information, In the Public Interest is calling for increased transparency in government contracting and privatization deals. 

Recent privatization initiatives across the country show that local and state government contracting are circumventing state sunshine laws. For example:

  • In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, rush attempts at privatizing the states’ lottery systems have avoided typical channels to allow for oversight by lawmakers and the public to ensure the plans are in the public’s best interest.
  • Despite public records and open meetings laws in Ohio, private organizations that receive public money have been allowed to keep their operations shrouded in secrecy.
  • In Allentown, Pennsylvania‘s push towards privatization of the water system, the city has refused to release information about potential contractors to the community, conducted business behind closed doors, and misled the public about the public costs of the possible long-term concession contract.

Demands for accountability are increasing. Recent court rulings in Minnesota, Florida, Wisconsin, and Tennessee have ruled in favor of increased transparency of government contractors. For example:

  • In Tennessee, the Court of Appeals ruled against the for-profit prison giant, Corrections Corporation of America, affirming that in their position as a government contractor, they must make public certain documents that they previously refused to disclose including reports and audits in which they had been found in violation of their contracts and lawsuit settlements where the company had to pay damages.
  • The Florida circuit court ruled that Aramark, the company that took control of housekeeping and maintenance services at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, must divulge information regarding the number of formerly public employees that were offered positions with the company following the privatization effort.

State legislators are also taking action:

  • Virginia recently passed a bill that requires contractors engaging in public-private partnerships for transportation services to make their proposals readily available to the public.
  • New Mexico is pushing forward legislation that would require large government contractors to disclose their political contributions and post them on the state’s Sunshine Portal.

ITPI’s in-depth account of the loss of government transparency and public access to contractor information can be found here: Floodlights Instead of Flashlights: Sunshine Laws out of Step with Government Contracting Leave Public and Lawmakers in the Dark.