By Benita M. Dodd
For any Georgians still wondering about the need to see what government is up to with their tax dollars, it’s highlighted by the most recent example: Cobb County’s special election on extending a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). How special? Scheduled on an “off” day, it cost taxpayers $500,000 or so, according to the Marietta Daily Journal.
That’s almost $14 per voter. The turnout of about 36,000 of the county’s 370,000 or so registered voters was 9.7 percent of registered voters. Six percent (21,859) of the county’s registered voters won a tax increase for 679,325 residents. That’s 3.2 percent of the county’s population. Still, the newspaper could note the SPLOST passed by a “landslide” 61 percent to 39 percent.
Apathy, ignorance and lack of awareness of the special election are probably all to blame for the low turnout. It won’t happen again, fortunately: Georgia House Rep. Jeff May’s legislation in this past session will end those “off” day special elections. Starting in 2010, special elections on questions must be held in a primary or general election in even years and on two specified days in odd years.
As Founding Father James Madison pointed out, “A popular government, without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” That 3.2 percent of Cobb’s population could impose a tax increase on the rest of the county – no matter how noble the cause – is a testament to the champions’ dedication, but also testimony to the need for open government so that elections don’t turn into a “farce.” It’s common knowledge that special elections are an activist’s playground, in which the fewer in the general population with knowledge and aforethought, the less likely the opposition.
Special elections are one example of the need for transparency. Government spending overall is another. The recipients of government funds and contracts is a third. More eyes lead to greater accountability. And the tide is turning around the nation as taxpayers and taxpayer groups become more interested in what happens to the hard-earned dollars lifted from their wallets.
On the national level, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 led to the creation of a free, publicly searchable Web site for all federal contracts and grants over $25,000, at www.usaspending.gov and www.federalspending.gov. Texas was the trailblazer among states that followed with their own transparency legislation and Web sites for government agencies.
In 2008, Georgia’s Transparency in Government Act authorized the establishment of a free, searchable Web site that contains state expenditures, financial and performance audits, contracts, payments to vendors and data on personnel. The personnel data will include boards, commissions, every state authority, every university or college in the University System of Georgia and every local board of education. But for Georgia, the law only requires such transparency by 2010. The law can be found athttp://www.legis.state.ga.us/legis/2007_08/pdf/sb300.pdf.
There’s no need to wait until 2010. The Secretary of State’s office and the Carrollton County Commission are evidence that, from the state level to the local level, it isn’t hard to implement transparency. Secretary of State Karen Handel launched her office’s Transparency in Government Initiative Web site last month, publicizing her fiscal 2009 budget, which details planned expenditures and monthly spending. Available at http://www.sos.georgia.gov/tig/, the Web site also publicizes her campaign and personal finance disclosures and her office’s ethics policy.
In Carroll County, Bill Chappell, former publisher of the Carroll Star News and the Carroll County Commission chairman, made it his mission to publish the county’s spending online with a detailed listing of checks. View it at www.carrollcountyga.com.
Transparency sites are popular with taxpayers and provide not only an overview of government activity, they highlight redundancy and waste and result in cost savings and efficiency. The Missouri Accountability Portal, (http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov/MAP/Portal/Default.aspx) which went online in July 2007, is updated daily and has received more than 10 million hits. Missouri’s governor recently announced he had ordered an investigation after the National Taxpayers Union, which has 7,300 members in Missouri, questioned expenses over the last eight years for bakeries, beauty salons, bra stores, coffee shops and picture-framing galleries. The Texas comptroller’s office saved $2.3 million by examining the information on the state’s transparency Web site; simply consolidating five contracts for toner saved taxpayers $73,000.
Excuses about costly software or extra personnel are red herrings. Open source software is available; the taxpayer savings frequently offset the minimal expense. As the elections approach, one important question for voters to add to the list for political candidates: Will you work toward transparency in government spending? Holding government accountable can start with choosing candidates willing to advocate accountability.
Benita M. Dodd is 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 (September 19, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.