By February 21, 2018 Read More →

West Virginia Press Association opposes WV Senate Bill 474 restricting public access

WVPA Release:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Press Association has announced its opposition to W.VA. Senate Bill 474, which would eliminate public and media access to payroll information and details on how many West Virginia residents actually get jobs on publicly funded construction projects in West Virginia including work on the recently approved Roads to Prosperity $3 BILLION road plan.

W.VA. Senate Bill 474 is up for third reading in the West Virginia State Senate on Thursday and, if approved, would move to the W.Va. House of Delegates next week.

WVPA Executive Director Don Smith sent letters of opposition to each West Virginia State Senator and is reached out to West Virginia residents and voters, asking them to contact their senators about the bill.

“West Virginia voters interested in how many state residents will work on highways projects funded by Roads to Prosperity $3 BILLION highways projects might want to email their state senators tonight and Thursday morning to stop Senate Bill 474,” Smith said. “The WV Senate will vote Thursday on Senate Bill 474, which would restrict the public and the media from seeing payroll information on Roads to Prosperity projects and other publicly funded construction projects in WV.”
Residents wanting to hear the third reading in the Senate on Thursday can listen and view any debate online at http://www.wvlegislature.gov/live.cfm
Smith noted that residents needing their Senator’s email address can get the information at  http://www.wvlegislature.gov/Senate1/roster.cfm
 
“The payroll information in question was (and has been for years) accessible to the workers, the public and the media when the bond issue was placed on the ballot and approved in November,” Smith said. “But the WV Senate – in the first session since the bond passed – is considering restricting public and media access to the payroll information. We will not be able to check and see if they kept their promises about jobs and pay checks going to West Virginians.”
“SB 474 would restrict the information that would allow the public — to determine for itself — if and how many West Virginians were working on state jobs funded by the $3 BILLION roads projects. It would also keep the public and media from monitoring for themselves how much money is going to state residents and how much money is going to out-of-state workers living in WV only for the time of the job. Should SB 474 pass on Thursday, if your family members and friends don’t get jobs but the local construction lot in your town is filled with out-of-state pickup trucks and workers, you will not be able to request the payroll information to see who is working on those jobs.”
Smith has released the following statement, which was presented to the Senate:

Don Smith presentation on payroll bill:

The West Virginia Press Association opposed Senate bill 474, which, among other items, providing that any document submitted or filed pursuant to the West Virginia Jobs Act that includes records of actual wages paid to employees or information contained therein shall be considered confidential and proprietary and may not be considered a public record.

We see it as a First Amendment issue.

It restricts the ability of the press do to its job and the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Without access to information there cannot be effective monitoring of government.

In particular, three state government actions make this a bad piece of legislation.

The Legislature passed The West Virginia Jobs Act

The West Virginia Legislature enacted the West Virginia Jobs Act, requiring employers to hire 75% of their workers from the local labor market.  Monitoring the Jobs Act is one reason the media and the public should have access to the names and addresses in this payroll information. 

The WV Jobs Act is this is also the answer to the question on why only construction payrolls​ must be certified and public in this manner. Construction projects are unique in style of work, hiring and spending

​With the WV Jobs Act, the Legislature designed construction work unique. The Legislature’s unique rules on hiring should allow for similarly unique rules on monitoring.

The Legislature asked the people of WV to Pass the Jobs for Prosperity Road Bond Amendment. 

When that $3 billion amendment for road construction was passed, the workers knew the payrolls would be public, the contractors knew the payrolls would be public.

With the Roads to Prosperity bond issue, the legislature promised prosperity along with the roads.  If you pass this bill, we will be able to see the roads, but you are hiding the information on the prosperity. Monitoring the spending of the $3 Billion is one reason the public and media should have access to the dollar amounts in this payroll information.

Finally, the Legislature approved the FREEDOM OF INFORMATION:  which states, in part, the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

This is public money. The public has a right to know how it is being spent. The concept of freedom of information is another reason the public should have access to this payroll information.

It’s important to note the payroll information in the report, is NOT all of a worker’s financial or payroll information. This only impacts the payroll report for public money paid on state construction jobs. We should also note this payroll information is available now and has been for decades.

The workers expect the payrolls to be public … it has been state law and is the law on Federal projects.

That brings up another issues: If a project is funded through both state and federal money – matching money — as if often the case, are the payrolls filed and accessible?

There are other good reasons of public interest for keeping this information accessible.

If the information is restricted, the workers on the jobs, the people and the media will have no way of monitoring spending or watch for fraud.

Consider this: If you have only 1 percent fraud or waste on this bond issue. That is probably pretty good percentage.  But that’s still $30 MILLION dollars. That’s more money than the 1 percent pay raise being discussed for all of teachers in WV.

In terms of stopping fraud, state government needs the workers, the public and the media to help. The tax office is short-handed and understaffed. The tax department confirmed that in 2017 and again this year.

The workers and the public are always the first line of defense against violations and fraud in the workplace. They are directly impacted and pay the closest attention.

The media serves as a watchdog and works for the public. We do work to find violations but, more often, it is a worker, family member or a member of the public who gives us a tip or questions a report.

The information in these payrolls has already allowed the Affiliated Constructions Trades to identify a Florida firm that did not pay state taxes.

If West Virginia is lucky, the government may catch the next act of fraud, waste or violation, but it is almost always after the fact. Monitoring the reports after the work is complete might get the state of WV a check for a fine.  It doesn’t get a worker a paycheck or an unemployed West Virginian a job.

On big construction jobs, such as a $3 Billion road bond project, the bid for the work is only the start, that’s why it’s the bid, not the “final charge.” Change orders can be as big as the bid.

In terms of fraud, hiding payoffs in the change orders – unfortunately – isn’t unheard of in West Virginia. Neither is rewarding companies with political ties with government work, or those same companies hiring a relative or creating no-show jobs to reward a contract or bid approval.

President Ronald Reagan’s statement, “TRUST  …   but … VERIFY” is still true today.

Legislators supporting this bill have claimed that the effort would protect personal privacy — by restricting the payroll information from public scrutiny — but the legitimacy of that claims has to be challenged.

There are better examples where protecting personal privacy is not a Legislative standard, so the claim should not be used as a defense or reason for restricting public access in this case.

Today, each of legislator, when seeking re-election, can walk into the WV Secretary of State’s office and purchase voter registration data for your campaign.

The state of West Virginia will sell the personal information on every voter in the state to any politician or interested party.

Look at the information you can buy: Name, residence address, party affiliation, voting status, birthdate, mailing address and other information.

Only one class of West Virginians has an interest in, or benefits from, that private voter information: politicians.

On this piece of legislation or on other bills, as long as legislators and politicians can purchase the detailed personal information of every voter in West Virginia from state government, feeble claims about protecting anyone’s personal privacy fail to cover sounds of legislators laboring hard in backrooms to restrict the Public’s access to information special interest groups want restricted.

That being the case, it’s hard to see a concern for personal privacy as a primary reason or a legitimate cause for restricting public access to this information.

Especially when this payroll information represents Billions of tax dollars and the hopes and dreams for the future of all West Virginians.

This payroll information has been and was available when this legislature asked the people of West Virginia to trust you and approve a $3 BILLION mortgage on the state’s future.

The WVPA request that you vote against this bill and keep this information in the public realm, giving the workers and the public access to the information they would need to find misuse of their tax dollars and waste or fraud on projects such as the road bond construction work, and allowing the press do to its job.

Passing this legislation would be a tremendous disservice to the people of WV.

 

 

Comments are closed.