This weekend hundreds of Georgian families will be setting up the new computers they purchased during the state’s sales tax holiday. If they have access to the Internet, they will find a world of information has opened to them. Whether you’re looking for the University of Georgia’s football schedule, a recipe for German potato salad, an explanation of the Pythagorean Theorem or tomorrow’s weather, it’s all easily accessible.
The Internet also enables you to be a better citizen. Since nearly every newspaper is online these days, you can get different perspectives on complicated issues. If you don’t trust the media, go straight to the source. As Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
Unfortunately, some information is still difficult or impossible to find. What if you want to find out just how much money your child’s elementary school spent last year? You won’t find that on the Internet. Each school system’s total spending is available, but we are left to guess how much money actually gets to the classroom in each school building.
If you get lost often, or if you just don’t like to ask for directions, Internet mapping services like MapQuest can provide door-to-door driving directions. You can even pull up a satellite picture of your house. But try to find a map of your school’s attendance zone, as many house hunters would really appreciate, and you will likely be disappointed.
What if you would like to know how your town’s crime rate compares to other neighboring towns? No luck again. Georgia actually has a law that prevents the Georgia Crime Information Center from releasing crime totals for individual city police departments or county sheriff’s offices.
What if you just received your local tax bill and wanted to see if your city was spending more or less money than other similar cities on basic services such as garbage collection, water and sewer? It will be next to impossible to find this data if you live in a small town, and very difficult if you are in a large city.
What if you simply want to see how the taxes you pay compare with those in other areas of the state? Finally, a question that can be answered, sort of. The State Department of Revenue lists sales tax rates, property tax rates and ad valorem rates for every local government, but for an accurate comparison you need the local homestead exemption. Finding the homestead exemption is hit or miss.
This is disappointing, but to its credit, government in Georgia has come a long way in terms of technology. You can view legislation online, renew your driver’s license, register your business, get your hunting or fishing license, monitor traffic jams on I-285 or monitor air and water quality in your region. You can even watch the General Assembly or State School Board meetings live. (You don’t have to tell anyone you actually watch.)
Even though there is still some very basic information that average citizens can’t access, it’s exciting to think about our opportunities. Look what the Internet has done for buying airline tickets, books, software and automobiles. Making the same information on cost and quality available to millions of Georgians could have a tremendous impact on how government operates.
Taxpayers who pay for government services and citizens who receive those services deserve to know how their money is being spent and what that money is buying. The Internet provides government at all levels an easy and affordable opportunity to make government more transparent. It also helps focus public opinion on facts rather than perceptions. At the very least, it would help us all justify these new computers for something other than playing Solitaire or forwarding bad jokes.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 1, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the authors and his affiliations are cited.
It’s so often a lack of information that keeps us from getting involved. The Foundation is doing for the public what many could not do for themselves. Anytime that we’re given the truth, people can make good decisions.