Editorial: WV Senate thinking about ways to hide public information; House should dump SB 474

From The Charleston Gazette-Mail:

If you want public information in the future, particularly if it involves spending on highways projects, don’t expect the West Virginia Senate to help you get it.

The Senate this week sent to the House a bill (Senate Bill 474) to make contractors’ employee wage records confidential. Such documents, required by the West Virginia Jobs Act, are now public record.

Lawmakers’ arguments that they are shielding people from an invasion of privacy or identity theft fall flat. No one needs to share Social Security numbers or the gross pay of individuals. As Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, noted, the state Freedom of Information Act already prohibits the government from disclosing such personal details.

No, a more likely scenario is that people may legitimately want to know what is paid to employees on state construction jobs, such as those funded by the recent $4 billion Roads to Prosperity bond, especially given the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law.

Repealing prevailing wage was not an effort to open the way for contractors to hire cut-rate workers from out-of-state, or to depress wages here, supporters told workers at the time. It’s about prosperity, and getting government out of business.

So, you would think lawmakers who supported that change would want the wages paid to highway construction crews to be readily available to all the public, so everyone could see how right they were.

Apparently not. The bill passed the Senate on a 23-12 vote along party lines.

Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, said recent FOIA requests for the information have come from lawyers, not the news media. He inadvertently makes a very good point.

Public information belongs to the public, all the public, not just the news media. News organizations often ask for and get public information to tell readers and listeners important stories about their world. But Freedom of Information is not a special right of news organizations. It’s the people’s information.

The people of West Virginia naturally will want to be able to monitor and evaluate the effects of their road projects. The House should dump this bad idea from the Senate.

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