A state senator is sponsoring a bill that would significantly expand the number of state and local government employees whose pay could be kept secret from the public.
State law requires that salary information for government employees who earn more than $10,000 a year be made public. But the bill by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland County, would raise that to twice the federal minimum wage – about $30,000. The bill also says that any publicly available database of local or state government employee salaries would not include names of the employees.
Open government advocates said at a subcommittee hearing Tuesday that the bill would hinder transparency and make it difficult to discover nepotism and unfairness. Proponents said the bill was necessary to protect state employees from identity theft, although they acknowledged they knew of few examples of identity theft that could be tied to a public employee database.
A Senate General Laws and Technology subcommittee that heard the bill, chaired by Stuart, recommended it next be approved by the full committee.
Stuart said publication of government employees’ salaries makes it easier for criminals to commit identity theft.
“It’s my understanding that there were quite a number of fraudulent tax returns, which was able to get tax refunds, which costs us money, which injures those state employees who have their identities stolen,” he said.
Sara Wilson, director of the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, said an unintended consequence of public employee salary data is identity theft.
“We know that there are 1,500 people that have been impacted by this,” she said.
But she and Craig Burns, the state tax commissioner who also spoke to the committee, later acknowledged that not all 1,500 cases of identity theft involved public salary data. Burns said in an interview that data used in the thefts of three or four employees appeared to come from a public database.
He and Wilson were asked how criminals would obtain Social Security numbers.
“We have data breaches with the IRS, Anthem. They may not contain salary information, but it has name, Social Security number,” Burns said. “Criminals, fraudsters sit and match this up on high-speed servers.”
But he added: “I can’t point to the fact that the salary information that’s posted in these databases was the cause.”
Craig Merritt, a lawyer representing the Virginia Press Association, said matching public employees’ names to job titles and salaries is an important function of government and that identity theft was not a problem of the Freedom of Information Act.
“Taxpayers want to know what they’re paying for and who they’re paying it to,” he said. “It alerts the public to problems: payroll padding, nepotism.”
In Richmond, Merritt said, “we’ve got a mayor who’s loaded up his office with members of his congregation. These are the things you don’t know if you don’t know who the names are.”
And without names of public employees, there’s no way to know if an employee is being treated unfairly, he said.
Stuart, who is vice chairman of the state’s Freedom of Information Advisory Council, was not swayed.
“You all make money off of this,” he told Merritt. “These folks are making money off of this.”
Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said other jurisdictions don’t have the same concern. The District of Columbia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Ohio, for example, publish employee salaries with names on their state websites, she said.
Representatives of the Virginia Governmental Employees Association, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, the Virginia State Police Association and Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police backed the bill.
Jon Russell, a member of the Culpeper Town Council, opposed the bill because he said it would allow conflicts of interest.
“When I put my budget together, I have to put a name to every dollar that we spend and I do that in front of our taxpayers,” he said.
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.