It’s getting to be crunch time for state legislators, who still need to pass the state’s biennial budget by the end of June to avoid a state government shutdown. You wouldn’t necessarily know it by the public schedule, but the budget is the dominant topic of conversation in all corners of the State House. Unfortunately, much of that conversation isn’t occurring on any official agenda or in front of a microphone where the public can listen, but behind closed doors. That’s been a sad trend in recent years: As negotiations over the budget often come down to the last possible minute, they become secret, hidden from public view.

That would be troubling enough for any legislation in Augusta, but it’s especially disconcerting that it always seems to happen with the largest, most complex, most important bill every session. Secret discussions in government might be necessary from time to time when the topic is especially sensitive, like a personnel matter or national security, but neither of those apply to the state budget. It’s high time these back-room negotiations end, and light is thrust upon every aspect of the budget process from start to finish. The public as a whole deserves to see how the state budget is written – not just see the final product.

It’s not just members of the public who are locked out of the process: many legislators are, as well. If you’re not a member of leadership, or on the Appropriations Committee, good luck getting any real information about the negotiations. You won’t get detailed updates; instead, leadership will ask members for their views on a few big-ticket items, and then try to work around those. Eventually, when a deal is reached, it will be presented as a fait accompli. Two years ago, legislators barely even had a chance to read the budget before they had to vote on it.

That’s completely unacceptable. Transparency in governing is not just some legal technicality to be circumvented at a whim; it’s a cornerstone of our system of government. It’s as vital to maintaining our democracy as elections themselves. It’s the only way we can monitor our government, to ensure that they’re really acting on our behalf – whether we do it directly ourselves, or trust the media to do it for us.

Transparency isn’t just good for citizens, it’s good for government as well. When government is open and honest about what they’re doing, it increases everyone’s faith that they’re doing the right thing. When they conduct business in secret, it’s easy to assume they’re up to no good. That leads people to the conclusion that all politicians are corrupt, that nobody’s really looking out for them, and that none of them can be trusted. Then, when a candidate comes along who truly is a corrupt con-man out to take advantage of people, it becomes harder for voters to recognize them for what they really are.

Legislators should be more than willing to have all of their negotiations about the state budget – and all other legislation – out loud, in front of the public. They should have faith in our democratic system, and in the voters who elected them. They shouldn’t be afraid to say something controversial, or to propose new ideas, or to have real public debates.

It’s understandable why they would be, of course. For years both parties have been playing gotcha politics, pouncing on every slight slip-up to derail their opponents’ careers. It’s natural, then, for politicians to want to have private conversations, avoiding the wrath of the angry public – and that’s fair, to a certain degree. However, when this is abused – as it has been in Augusta of late – it becomes thoroughly undemocratic, and the public is right to start to question the motives of those involved.

It’s not just an issue in state government, either. This is a major problem in Washington, where Republicans continue to desperately try to craft a health care bill in secret talks. It can be a problem in local government as well: Your town selectmen might leave a controversial topic they plan to discuss off the published agenda, for example.

None of that is really ethical, even if it is legal. Politicians who are trying to do the right thing for their constituents don’t have anything to fear from the public. Greater transparency at all levels of government may hurt special interests trying to get their own way, but it would do wonders for the greater good.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: @jimfossel