Veiled Government is Tennessee’s Dirty Little Secret

November 24, 2009 9:30PM

By Drew Johnson Secrets, secrets are no fun. Secrets, secrets hurt someone. There’s truth to the rhyme we learned as children when it comes to the secrets kept by government in Tennessee. As a consequence of inadequate government transparency regulations, the Volunteer State has one of the most secretive state governments in the nation. This lack of openness makes corruption, misuse of tax dollars and abuse of power by elected officials commonplace in Tennessee. Unfortunately, the culture of secrecy in Tennessee begins at the top, in the Governor’s Office. As the president of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, an organization known for advocating transparent and accountable government, I have seen firsthand the lengths to which the Administration will go to prevent Tennesseans from knowing the truth about how our government operates. TCPR was forced to sue the Administration when, after nine months, we still had not received correspondence and financial documents related to last year’s state budget. When I suspected a Department of Revenue training retreat was little more than a frivolous junket, I was told I must pay $387,000 to view emails related to the event. Troublingly, these are just two of dozens of examples of the Bredesen Administration’s attempts to keep public records out of the public’s hands. The Governor, however, is simply taking advantage of a history of government secrecy in Tennessee that extends far beyond the executive branch. State legislators continue to exempt themselves from the open government and public records regulations they require every other government official in the state to follow. Moreover, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, unlike the FBI, refuses to allow an individual to inspect his own TBI file. Tennessee is among only a handful of states that continue to require individuals requesting public documents to reside in that state. This seemingly innocuous rule prevents outside news agencies from researching records and exposing possible wrongdoing. Perhaps most telling of all, until just this year the state legislature’s voting records were not available online. Even now, committee votes are largely unrecorded. When the new session of the General Assembly convenes next January, Gov. Bredesen and our state lawmakers owe it to the people of this state to lift the veil of secrecy masking the government’s actions. The Governor should lead the way by signing an executive order putting all executive level spending online. The state legislature should follow by making the state’s check registers available on the internet so Tennesseans can see how the state government spends our money. Finally, open records laws should be extended to include the state legislature, broadened to allow non-Tennesseans the opportunity to inspect public documents and improved to give individuals the right to request their own TBI file. There’s a place for secrecy in government when it comes to nuclear codes and social security numbers, but when it comes to how government spends your money or makes the decisions that impact your life, secrecy is indistinguishable from tyranny