By Kelly McCutchen
“We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses and consequently to control them.” – President Thomas Jefferson to Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin in 1802.
Texas public employees think twice before they spend government funds. Whether it’s signing a multi-million dollar contract or dining at a restaurant, their expenditures will be posted on the Internet for all Texas citizens to see. Recent revelations of spending sprees by Georgia’s state employees with state purchasing cards illustrate why it’s high time this state joins Texas and others to increase disclosure of how our tax dollars are being spent.
Surprisingly, it all started with the federal government. In 2007, a free, searchable Web site (www.USAspending.gov) went live. The site, created by the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, gives the public access to all federal contracts, grants and payments of more than $25,000.
Several states quickly followed suit. Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Hawaii passed transparency legislation. The governors of Missouri, Texas, South Carolina and Louisiana signed executive orders to post state spending information online. Of course, everything’s bigger in Texas, even the transparency effort: Today, 60 Texas school districts post their check registers online and last year Texas A&M became the first university in the state to post all expenditures online.
It’s a fact that people spend money more wisely when they know they are being watched and held accountable. The problem is that there is little incentive for government employees to spend taxpayer dollars as if they were their own – prudently. Nowadays, state employees boast the latest technology, from Blackberrys to flat-panel monitors, while small businesses and non-profits pass on it, unable to justify the cost in their limited budgets.
With Georgia considering pouring millions more dollars into education and implementing tax increases to fund trauma care, health insurance and transportation, the timing is perfect for taxpayers to demand greater accountability for their existing tax dollars. The state and local governments should be required to post their expenditures to a searchable, online database. As in Texas, Georgia citizens should be able to view broad categories of spending as well as a virtual check register, with information down to the transaction level.
The first excuse is always, “Great idea, but it will cost too much to put all of that data online.” Fortunately, in this Information Age, transparency has become easy and inexpensive. Implementing the database for the entire federal government cost $600,000. Missouri created its transparency Web site within its existing budget. Oklahoma merely needed some staff time and $8,000 for software. Microsoft and Google have even discussed helping states with their transparency efforts.
A more important question to ask is, “How much is it costing us not to have this information available?” Susan Combs, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, reports that, “At my office alone, we have already saved $2.3 million.”
Early experience in other states indicates the savings from making this information readily available should easily outweigh the cost of implementation.
“Taxpayers not only expect this level of transparency and openness, but they deserve it for many reasons,” says Combs.
“First and foremost, it’s their money. We’re giving Texans easy access to information useful in deciding whether tax dollars are being spent in a responsible manner. In the process, we’re getting taxpayers involved in state government and holding agencies more accountable to the public.”
Wasteful spending and inefficiency encourage government mission creep and irresponsibility, and harm taxpayers by needlessly diverting their hard-earned dollars from their own use. Consider the possibilities as thousands of tax advocates, bloggers and ordinary Georgians become empowered to uncover waste and inefficiency in government spending. The resulting savings could reduce taxes or fund other programs such as trauma care. “Transparency for every tax dollar,” should be the mantra for Georgians.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy 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 (February 22, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is our state’s leading organization promoting government transparency. The Secretary of State’s office shares the Foundation’s commitment to transparency and responsible stewardship of taxpayer dollars, which is why our agency was the first in Georgia to publish its budget and spending data on a public transparency website.