By Benita M. Dodd
Sunshine Week, the effort to promote open government, is celebrated nationally this year from March 16-22. But the campaign launched (appropriately) in the Sunshine State in 2002 draws to an end with the risk that the Peach State once again may miss out on an important tool for transparency in government.
It’s not for want of trying in the Georgia Legislature. Last year, House legislation to require annual agency expenditure reports to the General Assembly passed both chambers unanimously but was vetoed by the governor, who cited privacy concerns for state employees. This year, the bill returned but died in a House committee. Meanwhile, Senate transparency legislation, aptly called the “Transparency in Government Act,” would set up by 2010 a searchable Web site for all state agencies to report expenditures, “that allows the public to search and aggregate information identified” at no charge. It passed the Senate and has an excellent chance at House approval – unless the chambers’ differences over tax packages stymie this and other important legislation.
Every state considering transparency legislation has faced dire predictions of outrageous costs to do so. Kansas’ transparency site, KanView, has been projected to cost $50 million. The Web site currently operating at www.kanview.kansas.gov opened March 1 and is authorized to operate for just one year pending enabling legislation under consideration. Perhaps more important is to compare the cost with the benefit to taxpayers: The site is expected to save the state $1 billion.
Even more remarkable is that the federal Office of Management and Budget successfully launched its transparency Web site in December for far less. For www.USAspending.gov, the software cost about $600,000 and the entire database was created for less than $1 million. Taxpayers can access information on federal expenditures, including grants and contracts above $25,000.
Missouri’s Web site went live in July 2007, cost less than $12,000, using borrowed staff and the state IT department. The Web site, the Missouri Accountability Portal atwww.mapyourtaxes.mo.gov, reported a million hits by Oct. 1 and close to 2 million by this month. The MAP site provides information about state agency expenditures, the distribution of economic development tax credits and state employee pay information.
For Texas, with an annual budget of $99 billion, setup was just $300,000 in software for the transparency Web site, Window on State Government, atwww.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/expendlist/cashdrill.php.
“Taxpayers have the absolute right to know how their money is being spent, and it is only with transparency that government can be held truly accountable,” Texas Comptroller Susan Combs notes. “We are helping citizens with an easy way to examine state expenditures in one place without needing to contact multiple agencies.”
Texas boasts that taxpayers can track expenditures “down to the pencils.” The Texas Education Agency, meanwhile, has a “virtual check register” reporting on school district spending athttp://www.tea.state.tx.us/tea/check/.
The road to transparency in government doesn’t even have to go through the Legislature. There’s always the option of gubernatorial action. The governors issued executive orders in Missouri and in Florida. Florida created a state Open Government Office and ordered state agencies to post contract information on their own Web sites. Legislation in both chambers seeks to require online postings by Florida state agencies and local governments, including cities, counties, school districts, of all expenditures of $5,000 or more and all payments made under contacts worth $5,000 or more.
The degree of transparency differs from state to state, but expect more detailed disclosure as states and taxpayers grow familiar with the data unveiled. South Carolina’s Spending Transparency Web sit, at https://ssl.sc.gov/SpendingTransparency/, provides annual summaries and monthly detailed lists of expenditures. By contrast, Missouri’s Web site is updated every business day.
All indications are that expense is less of a hurdle than is the apprehension over what such transparency might reveal.
How important is transparency to Georgians? It’s not just that voters deserve to see where their tax dollars are being spent. Experience shows that the citizen advocates who take the time to be government watchdogs frequently offer more effective spending alternatives to entrenched bureaucracies and that agencies are more cautious when they are aware the sun is shining on their activities.
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 (March 21, 2008). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.