For years, Montana officials have been concealing information about the millions of dollars they are paying to settle claims against the state.

But a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Mercer would help change that.

Senate President Scott Sales and former House Speaker Austin Knudsen, both Republicans, appointed the Joint Select Committee for Settlement Accountability last year to investigate why the state paid $3 million in confidential settlements between 2013 and 2017.

In April 2018, three of the four Democrats appointed to the newly formed committee refused to participate in its first meeting.

Although the committee unanimously supported Democratic Rep. Brad Hamlett's bill to require settlement agreements to be kept for 20 years, which is great, every Democrat on the committee voted against Mercer's bill to make those public records easily available to the public online.

Under Mercer's bill, the state would have no more than 30 days to publish information showing the date each settlement was made and the entity of the state where the claim originated. The bill would also prohibit nondisclosure agreements in any settlements involving the state.

Montana law already requires public access to "all terms, conditions, and details of the government portion of a compromise or settlement agreement," and the Montana Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the public has a right to know about the settlements being paid by its government.

However, there are currently no penalties for state officials who fail to comply. So oftentimes they don't.

In 2016, the state denied the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's requests for details of payments issued by the departments of Justice, Revenue, Natural Resources and Conservation, Transportation, Public Health and Human Services, and Fish, Wildlife & Parks. In 2017, FWP refused to let the Independent Record see a settlement agreement until we hired an attorney to draft a lawsuit.

Under Mercer's bill, any employee who fails to comply would be subject to potential discipline and a penalty of up to $500. While some say that goes too far, we believe public officials will continue to flaunt public records laws until some type of penalties are imposed.

Existing laws allow state settlements to be kept secret if someone's right to privacy clearly outweighs public disclosure, and opponents of Mercer's bill have raised concerns that it would violate the privacy of those involved. But public servants do not enjoy the same privacy rights as private citizens, and we do not believe those who accept public money as part of a government settlement should be able to keep that a secret.

Some in Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock's administration have argued that the Joint Select Committee for Settlement Accountability was created only to make the governor look bad, which is just silly. The great thing about Mercer's bill is that it doesn't apply only to the current administration, and it will continue to hold state officials accountable long after Bullock leaves office in 2021.

Mercer’s bill passed the House earlier this month and is now advancing to the Senate. If it manages to make it to the governor's desk, it deserves his full support.

This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board. 

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