Open government is the best government. Transparency is the salve that can heal many wounds.
For 35 years as a journalist, I have fought for open government. I have written more open records requests than I can remember; helped lead a statewide audit of public records almost two decades ago; and placed myself on what I consider to be the side of the angels.
You get the picture, it’s my fight and I won’t pull any punches.
That was until this week when an open government bill in the Georgia General Assembly passed out of the Senate Higher Education Committee. Simply, stated Senate Bill 331 would allow Georgia Lottery winners to remain anonymous.
Many bills that limit or deny public access are not good public policy. This time, I can understand the reason for it.
On the same day that the Senate committee was a holding a hearing on this bill, I was reporting on a $50,000 PowerBall winner in southern Harris County. Ross Mitchell, owner of The Store on Ga. 218 was trying to make sure the winner claimed the prize because he had been told by local lottery officials it was still unclaimed, though it was won two days before Christmas.
Turns out the winner claimed the prize on Jan. 4.
Under Georgia law, the Lottery Corp is required to provide limited information to include the name and town of residence on the winners. I requested the name of the winner for the ticket sold at The Store.
After a couple of days, Georgia Lottery officials released the winner’s name and hometown to the Ledger-Enquirer. We have not published it, yet.
The lottery official said the person wanted to talk to me and wished that their name not be published. I gave the lottery official my cellphone number on Thursday, but did not hear back from the person.
I don’t know the reason or reasons that person does not want their name in the public domain. I called Mitchell back to tell him what I had discovered.
He didn’t know the name of the winner.
“I just wanted to know that it has been claimed,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know the name and I don’t need to know.”
My guess is the winner probably still comes in and out of The Store. And, you have to applaud Mitchell for his take on this.
That person probably took home about $30,000 — maybe a little more, maybe a little less. That is a nice windfall, but it is certainly not life altering for many people. It’s a good car or truck, maybe the way to get out of debt, a couple of years of college for the kids and could even pay for a wedding.
Maybe that person doesn’t want everyone around them knowing of their good fortune.
If someone wins a mega jackpot, it is going to be nearly impossible to keep their name out of the public light. But if someone wins a prize of $50,000 and wishes to remain anonymous, that’s a little easier.
I do have one issue with the bill, though. And it needs to be crystal clear if this legislation is to win the approval of the General Assembly and move to the governor’s desk for signing on the way to becoming law.
It would require winners seeking anonymity to give up to 4 percent of their winnings to the state for officials to manage open records requests and other costs to maintain confidentiality, according to the bill.
“The corporation shall determine the exact amount of payment required, based upon the anticipated actual cost for maintaining such confidentiality,” the bill reads.
Don’t make this a state money grab.
Take the woman who won the $50,000 on the ticket she bought at the Backwaters. It could cost her up to $2,000 to keep the public from learning her name.
That seems a little steep to me.
But, let’s say you are the lucky sucker who holds a winning ticket worth $250,000,000. If the state of Georgia got the full 4 percent, it would be $10 million to keep one’s name out of the public domain.
The General Assembly would be wise to make sure how that figure is derived is clear.
But, right now, one person who usually fights any limitations on government information is not ready to fight this one. It may be needed.