No Connecticut governor may have ever rushed to the defense of the public's right to know faster than Gov. Ned Lamont did the other week when his public health commissioner, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, said she would not release school-by-school data on the vaccination of students. Within a few hours the governor overruled the commissioner. The governor's spokesman said the data will be released as soon as they are complete and verified, since Lamont "believes strongly that this is important information for the public and policymakers to have at their disposal."
Indeed, the growing number of parents claiming a religious exemption from vaccination for their children was a controversy in the General Assembly this year, causing concern that the old childhood diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella could return in epidemic size if "herd immunity" is not sustained by the traditional vaccination rate of 95 percent.
Last year's school-by-school vaccination data was released by the commissioner in May. But reversing herself last week, the commissioner claimed that the law gives her discretion to withhold the data. Her spokeswoman did not respond to a request to cite any such statute and the commissioner did not provide any argument for concealing the new data. She seemed not to have been vaccinated against bureaucratitis, which causes government officials to hallucinate that government information is proprietary.
But the governor immediately recognized that the vaccination and religious-exemption issues can't be evaluated by legislators and the public without disclosing the data.
The religious claim against vaccination is bogus. It figures in no denomination's theology and is being used as a pretext by parents who fear that vaccines or a chemical formerly used in them may cause autism. All authoritative studies have found no connection, but innumerable people have been demonstrably protected by vaccines since the autism scare was perpetrated.
Connecticut doesn't require that children be vaccinated, only that they be vaccinated if they are to attend school or day-care centers. That is enough parental choice, for vaccination is simply a small duty to society.
But this year the General Assembly was intimidated by the opponents of repealing the religious exemption. Their numbers were small but they were fierce and even hysterical, so the legislature failed to act. The new data from the Public Health Department will show not only the increasing use of the exemption but also the particular schools where use of the exemption is getting out of hand. That indication of danger may generate the pushback from the public that is necessary for the exemption's repeal. There is enough political hysteria these days, and legislators need to reject it in defense of public health. There is courage in information.
Now that the governor seems to be in a right-to-know mood, he would do Connecticut another favor to seek repeal of something else: the provision of the state budget that exempts the state's new educational grant agency from freedom-of-information and ethics rules.
The commission will dispense not only the $100 million gift from Ray and Barbara Dalio but another $100 million in state government money. No good reason -- indeed, no reason at all -- has been offered for the exemption. Apparently the Dalios want to avoid disclosing their connections to potential grant recipients. In that case they should donate their money privately without mingling it with state government's.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn.