According to the old adage, we should never look a gift horse in the mouth. But this time we should make an exception.
Barbara and Ray Dalio, owners of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, have pledged to give $100 million to Connecticut for public education, and state officials have agreed to match that gift with $100 million in taxpayer money and to seek another $100 million from other donors.
This is a huge donation, and the Connecticut couple, with an estimated net worth of $16.9 billion, have startled the state with their generous offer. Gov. Ned Lamont called it “a historic investment to support, encourage, and mentor our young people so they can achieve their greatest potential.” The fund would focus on communities with high rates of poverty and disengaged youth.
But there’s a problem, and it’s a big one. The donation would come from the Dalios’ foundation, Dalio Philanthropies, and state lawmakers have agreed that the operation of the new partnership is to be overseen by a nonprofit entity called Partnership for Connecticut Inc., not by a government agency — making it exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act and state ethics rules.
In effect, $100 million of the taxpayers’ money would be disbursed under a shroud of secrecy. This is anathema to the very idea of open government as enshrined in the FOI Act, which was created on the principal “that secrecy in government is inherently inconsistent with a true democracy ..."
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, who represents Berlin and Southington, has defended the decision, saying the Dalios’ historic contribution is “a golden opportunity” for the state. But the secrecy involved is questionable on its face and would certainly set a bad precedent.
“The fact that tax dollars are involved, to me, mandates that there be transparency,” said Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who represents a part of Wallingford. “Since when does our wealthy community dictate how public policy should be crafted?”
In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million donation to the Newark, New Jersey, public schools, the funds to be allocated by a nonprofit foundation. That gift, too, was criticized for a lack of transparency.
Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission Executive Director Colleen Murphy noted that other entities that have performed a governmental function in Connecticut have ultimately had to abide by the FOI Act.
While we would hate to discourage people with very deep pockets from exercising their charitable instincts, we trust that a way will be found to use this huge gift for the public good without keeping the public in the dark.