A movement to bring transparency into government spending is gaining steam across the country.
Guided by the idea that accountability is one of the cornerstones of representative democracy, politicians across the country are following the lead of Governors Mitch Daniels (R) of Indiana and Rick Perry (R) of Texas, both of whom have made big strides in shedding light on government expenditures.
One of the first executive orders Daniels signed in 2005 was a directive to the state’s Department of Administration to log written state contracts on the Internet. Today, Hoosiers may access on the Internet relevant information pertaining to the state’s contracts.
Governor Leads Way
Perry made spending transparency reform one of the key planks of his budget reform plan unveiled in January of this year. His proposal includes requiring all state agencies to publish expenditures online.
“Hiding wasteful expenditures behind worthwhile expenditures is a budgetary sham that makes government more bloated, less accountable, and less transparent,” Perry said in an interview for this article. “We should demand that state government publish expenditures online in a clear, concise, and consistent format for all Texans for see.”
Texas state Rep. Brian Hughes (R-Mineola) has introduced legislation that would require every state agency to list all expenditures online in a readily accessibly format.
To set a good example, the governor’s office has already embraced this level of expenditure reporting and has placed all office expenditures online (http://www.governor.state.tx.us/divisions/press/files/2007Q1_expenditure.pdf).
State Comptroller Susan Combs (R) followed suit and has not only posted her office’s expenditure information online, but also the information for eight other agencies (http://www.cpa.state.tx.us).
Transparency Keys Reform
State Rep. Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) has introduced legislation that would make all state contracts available for review on the Internet.
Michael Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, is excited about these efforts.
“TFR was formed with the overarching purpose to actively promote public policies that empower Texans, most notably by reducing the drag government exerts on our economy,” Sullivan said.
“But nothing empowers people quite like transparency,” Sullivan continued. “By making government expenditures more accessible, by giving individual Texans more knowledge about the operation of government and a greater voice with which to act on that knowledge, we will pave the way for lasting reforms that reduce taxes and improve the quality of government.”
Coburn Sparks Effort
State legislative efforts aimed at bringing transparency and accountability into government spending are largely modeled after legislation passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush last September.
The Federal Funding and Accountability and Transparency Act (Public Law No. 109-282), passed in a bipartisan effort led by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL), mandates the creation of a publicly accessible, free, and easily searchable Web site detailing relevant federal grant and contract information.
While the official federal Web site will be launched in 2008, taxpayers can get an advance look at the interim site, at http://www.federalspending.gov, where they are asked to submit their feedback.
“This site is about transparency,” said Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the federal Office of Management and Budget in a February 15 news release announcing the site’s launch. “That’s why we’re posting our implementation plan and asking for feedback directly from the public about how they want to design this Web site that puts information about federal spending at their fingertips.”
Bipartisan Support Rising
The spending transparency effort across the country enjoys bipartisan support, with Republicans and Democrats listed as sponsors on many bills.
“I believe that policymakers and interest groups from across the ideological spectrum are genuinely supportive of the goals of SB 1 [one of two Senate bills introduced on the issue] in Oklahoma,” said David Blatt, director of public policy at the Community Action Project in Oklahoma. “The challenge will be in actually finding practical mechanisms to launch a functioning, user-friendly Web site.”
Taxpayer activists believe just knowing these sites are being set up in a state will have a tremendous impact on spending patterns. Sullivan used an example from physics to explain why.
“Quantum physics tells us that we cannot directly observe subatomic activity, because the simple act of observation changes the behavior of the particles being observed. Governance is no different,” Sullivan said.
“When lawmakers and bureaucrats from the federal government down to the smallest village know they are being observed, they will behave differently,” Sullivan explained. “The simple act of making expenditures and contracts available will overnight change for the better the way they behave with our money and resources.”
Taxpayer Savings Predicted
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said he believes the move toward spending transparency “is a tremendously important effort, which has the potential of bringing immense cost savings for taxpayers simply because lawmakers will think twice about certain expenditures.”
Because of its importance, Norquist said he believes all levels of government should embrace it.
“Taxpayers will be best served when all levels of government are required to disclose their expenditures in a clear and searchable public format,” Norquist said. “Ultimately, government labor contracts should also be made publicly accessible, so that taxpayers get full disclosure as to how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent.”
Perry summed it up as follows: “I have a simple philosophy about transparency in government: If the taxpayers are picking up the bill, they ought to be able to look at every item on the receipt.”
Sandra Fabry ([email protected]) is state government affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.