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Editorial: No hiding mailing guidelines

Editorial: No hiding mailing guidelines

State government must tell people how they make decisions
Editorial: No hiding mailing guidelines
Empty desks of New York senators at the start of Senate session in Albany, N.Y., March 15, 2017.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

How secretive is New York state’s government?

Senate leaders fought a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request that asked for copies of the written guidelines the Senate uses to allocate money to legislators for the mailing of written materials to constituents.

They didn’t fight the release of how much money each lawmaker is allocated for mailings to constituents. They fought the release of the guidelines they use to determine who gets what.

That’s pretty sneaky, even for our state government.

Last week, Brooklyn state Senate candidate Blake Morris won a victory for the public’s right to know by successfully challenging the Senate’s refusal to release its mail guidelines.

Those guidelines determine how much money each lawmaker receives to mail out government-supported “informational” mailings - those publications you receive in your mailbox occasionally with photos of your local representative handing out a big check or standing over a pile of dirt wearing a hard hat and cradling a shovel. Lawmakers are allowed to send out two mailers at taxpayer expense per year, plus some first-class mail.

The mailers are technically separate from campaign literature. But they essentially serve the same function, helping incumbents build credibility and name-recognition with voters, and subtly discouraging potential political challengers — all at taxpayer expense.

In a fair system, each Senator should receive the same amount of money for mailings, since they each represent roughly the same number of state residents. But that’s not the case.

When you search for “Legislative Expenditures” (They’re available online.) you’ll immediately see that not all legislators spend the same amount on mailings.

Maybe there’s a good reason for discrepancies. Maybe it costs more, for instance, to purchase flyers and newsletters downstate or in big cities.

But some suspect the mailing discrepancies are politically motivated, with members of the majority party facing tough election races receiving more for mailings than lawmakers from the minority parties or those running unopposed or in less competitive races.

We may soon find out exactly how they do it.

State Supreme Court Justice Patrick McGrath in Albany County last Tuesday ruled in favor of Mr. Morris’s request for the guidelines, saying the Senate couldn’t hide behind exemptions in FOIL that allow them to keep documents secret.

The judge determined that the mailing guidelines represent “instructions to staff that affect members of the public,” and therefore must be released.

Good for the judge. Good for Mr. Morris. And shame on the Senate leaders for manipulating the system and trying to prevent citizens from knowing how they’re spending taxpayer money.

This is a positive ruling in a legal case that a member of the public never should have been forced to bring in the first place.

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