Momentum Keeps Building for Spending Transparency Movement

Published July 1, 2008

Those who thought the movement to increase transparency in government spending would be a flash in the pan have been proven wrong by a flurry of legislative and executive efforts in 2008, several of which were still ongoing at press time.

The movement kicked off in the wake of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. In 2007, five states passed legislation mandating the creation of online databases for government expenditures, and Governors Matt Blunt (R) of Missouri and Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina issued executive orders to that effect.

Four states–Louisiana, Mississippi, Utah, and Washington–have already passed and signed spending transparency legislation this year. In Georgia and Maryland, similar bills are awaiting the governor’s signature.

Governors, Other Officers Help

Governors Bobby Jindal (R) of Louisiana, Sarah Palin (R) of Alaska, and Jim Gibbons (R) of Nevada have taken executive action this year to make government finances more transparent, and several state constitutional officers have set out to do the same. In other states, transparency bills are moving through the legislative process.

“What we’re seeing here is a snowball effect with great benefits for the American taxpayer,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. “States are beginning to look at their neighbors and are saying, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’ And localities are getting in on the action, too.”

Brooke Dollens Terry, education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, confirms this is happening in Texas, where more than 150 school districts have posted their check registers online.

“It seems to be catching on at the local level by word of mouth,” Terry said.

Slowed by Small Setbacks

Amid the flurry of good news for taxpayers, however, some state legislative proposals have been stymied.

In South Dakota, Gov. Mike Rounds (R) vetoed a spending transparency measure in March. Duane Sand, state director of Americans for Prosperity in South Dakota, questioned the governor’s motive.

“His reasoning for vetoing it is based on phony cost projections that really have no basis in reality,” Sand said. “The state of Alaska was able to put its spending on the Internet in the form of Excel spreadsheets in less than three weeks, utilizing employees and college interns. One must wonder what the real motivation is behind this veto. Is there something in the records of state spending that the taxpayers don’t deserve to see?”

In Florida, observers anticipated swift passage of comprehensive spending transparency legislation that would have included not only state government spending but also local government spending. But lawmakers could not find common ground before the legislature adjourned for the year.

Washington Provides Model

Lawmakers may find it increasingly difficult to resist the growing trend to make government finances more transparent. Washington State may provide a strategic model as states pursue efforts going forward.

Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, outlined the secret to Washington’s success: “Engaging and educating stakeholders was critical to our successful effort in Washington.

“We held ongoing one-on-one meetings with elected officials and media to answer their questions and provided instant updates to the public on any progress or obstacles,” Mercier explained. “By keeping a bright light shining on the process each step of the way, lawmakers had no path to follow except the one leading to more transparency.”

The Washington Policy Center is one of many think tanks educating taxpayers about their states’ finances. Many of these organizations, among them the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, are launching their own Web sites dedicated to this effort.

Transparency Clearinghouse

One goal of the Mackinac Center’s Web site is to persuade state agencies and local school districts to provide detailed reports of their expenditures. Another goal is to act as a general clearinghouse for all other Michigan government transparency resources.

In April, acting on a request from the Mackinac Center, the Michigan Department of State became the first state agency to provide detailed expenditure data on a quarterly basis.

“We expect this to become the minimum standard for all state agencies,” said Ken Braun, director of the Mackinac Center’s transparency project. “If a department diverse enough to both mint license plates and run elections can willingly provide this report, then it is reasonable for us to ask for–or even demand–that every other agency comply as well.”

Said Norquist, “The beauty of the spending transparency issue is that if you can’t get it through the legislature, you may be able to get the governor to post expenditures via executive order, or you find another ally in the administration who will do it for their own office. Slowly and steadily, you erode the basis for those who claim it can’t be done or it’s a bad idea. Transparency is just a way too powerful concept.”

Sandra Fabry ([email protected]) is a government affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform. She is also the executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability, a new project of Americans for Tax Reform dedicated to promoting increased transparency in government spending and fiscal restraint.

For more information …

Transparency Web site, Mackinac Center for Public Policy: