AUGUSTA — Information may want to be free, as the saying goes, but when it comes to state government that isn’t always the case.
Even those elected to serve in the state Legislature are sometimes asked to pay for information from state government.
Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, hopes to change that.
Craven on Tuesday introduced a bill, LD 19, that would require state agencies to waive fees for public information if the request is made by a lawmaker who is assigned to a legislative committee that has oversight of the agency.
Maine’s Freedom of Access Act allows state agencies to charge a “reasonable” fee for the cost of compiling and copying information, but a dust-up Craven had last summer over information on a ranking system that was used by the Department of Health and Human Services to select lead agencies for the state’s Healthy Community Partnerships prompted the legislation, she said.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous the way it is now,” Craven said. As a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, Craven had requested public records including scoring sheets to rank the agencies.
She said at the time the information had just been released, so even finding and copying it would not have been much work, but Craven was asked to pay a $500 fee. The Sun Journal had previously requested the same information and was given the same price tag.
“I’m thinking that’s not right,” Craven said Tuesday. She agreed that agencies should be allowed to charge a reasonable amount to gather and copy information.
“But that particular charge seemed unreasonable to me because the information was about a very recent issue that had happened, and in my opinion, it wouldn’t have cost very much money to photocopy or to electronically send forward,” Craven said. “So, to me that was not right.”
Craven said she would file another request next week for information from DHHS about a recent decision on funding homeless shelters around the state.
New Beginnings, a Lewiston shelter for homeless teens, had its state support reduced by $30,000 a year, and Craven said DHHS did not provide a reason for the reduction.
She said New Beginnings was later told a mistake had been made, but the money was already spent, so they would be out of luck until the next round of funding became available.
Craven has since asked for a meeting with DHHS officials so they can explain the decision. “I don’t know if they are going to give that to me or not, so that’s what this bill is about,” she said.
The bill might have merit, according to the Attorney General’s Office, because nothing in current state law requires a waiver to be granted for public information fees.
Customarily, agencies have waived fees for lawmakers, but there is no provision in law requiring it.