Wednesday June 5, 2013

DAVE GRAM

Associated Press

MONTPELIER -- The Campaign for Vermont public policy group on Tuesday called for a new system of performance benchmarks for state programs, as well as increased transparency to ensure the goals are being met.

"A system where residents can monitor the performance of their government ... will inspire powerful, positive and economically essential reforms," said Mary Alice McKenzie, a founding officer of the group.

McKenzie, principal founder Bruce Lisman and Bill Schubart, a retired business leader who is not a CFV member but said he agreed with the group’s push for greater transparency, joined at a Statehouse news conference to issue a report containing a series of recommendations.

Campaign For Vermont, founded in late 2011, describes itself as nonpartisan. Many of its members are Republican legislators, former legislators and candidates for elective office. The group’s policy statements frequently have criticized the priorities of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Democrats who dominate the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the group issued a chart showing that total state spending, human services spending and Vermont’s poverty levels were all up sharply from 2008 to 2013, while median household income was rebounding after a dip and population growth was nearly stagnant.

"Despite repeated and grandiose promises for reform, Vermont still doesn’t measure up. There has been no meaningful effort to fundamentally transform the budgeting, management or service delivery models of state government," according to the group’s report, "Achieving Accountability."

A top Shumlin aide, Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, said Tuesday that the governor’s staff had made extensive efforts since taking office in 2011 to improve transparency.

He pointed to two sections of the governor’s website: a "governor’s dashboard" providing key indicators on human services, education, economic development and other programs, as well as a "spotlight.vermont.gov," which provides financial information.

"Transparency is something this administration has tried to lead on from the get-go," Spaulding said. He pointed to the governor’s support for expanding the state’s public record laws, including opening access to police investigative files, when doing so won’t interfere with active investigations.

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said there also was strong interest among lawmakers in improving transparency.

One complaint from the Campaign for Vermont was that much of the state’s publicly available data is too out of date for Vermonters to make informed decisions about how well government is performing. The group pointed to a pie chart on a state website on fossil fuel emissions that used data dating from 2008.

"In some places, there is no doubt that we are throwing good money after bad, and in others we’re getting great results. We just don’t know it until it’s too late to realign our priorities and invest more in what’s working," the report said.

Smith said lawmakers, too, support better tracking of results of legislation. "I think we can always do a better job trying to ascertain what the results are," he said.

The group’s recommendations included showing how state government will measure the results; the establishment of a new "transparency authority" to monitor progress toward greater accountability, beginning with the human services and education, cited as the most expensive items in the state budget. The group called for a new requirement that "every piece of legislation" include accountability and transparency measures. Lisman and Schubart acknowledged such standards might not apply easily to some legislation. It wants all financial management documents used by managers throughout state government to be available online, and clear ethics policies and enforcement systems.

Vermont currently does not have an ethics commission or similar organization.