States Launch Government Transparency Web Sites

Published April 1, 2009

Advocates of transparency in government spending are delighted with the level of sunlight the New Year is bringing to several states’ finances.

Since January 1, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, and Nevada have launched or significantly improved “transparency” Web sites that allow citizens to view state spending transactions online.

Utah plans to unveil its expenditure database this May, and transparency legislation is pending in Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Virginia.

However, more than half the states do not systematically reveal how tax dollars are spent. Some have even failed to post spending records online despite laws requiring them to do so.

Minnesota and Hawaii are in that last category. Each passed transparency legislation in 2007, and both failed to launch a transparency database by the deadline the laws established. Until recently there seemed to be no likelihood either would launch a site.

Year Late but Progressing

Minnesota House File 548 mandated a state spending site to be launched in January 2008. It is now more than a year late in arriving.

Brian McClung, director of communications and citizen outreach for the Office of Governor Tim Pawlenty (R), attributes the delay to technological and financial obstacles.

Minnesota uses an accounting system that was installed in 1994. Although it contains the needed financial data, questions have been raised about its Internet compatibility. In addition, House File 548 did not allocate the $1 million or more in funding deemed necessary for the site to be developed and made available to the public, so nothing was done to comply with the law.

Months after the required launch date had passed, Pawlenty shifted responsibility for developing the site from the state’s Department of Administration to the Department of Management and Budget. According to Curt Yoakum, legislative liaison for the latter department, the site is now on track to be launched in late February or early March of this year.

Only $5,000 Needed

According to Yoakum, the site has been developed and integrated with the old accounting system without new appropriations or outside expenses other than $5,000 paid for external consulting. Those costs are much less than the $1 million originally believed necessary.

Site designers also successfully bypassed the “antiquated” components of the accounting system. Far from being Internet-incompatible, the system will update the transparency site each night as it synchronizes that day’s accounting entries.

Hawaii Doing Nothing

Hawaii too has failed to launch its transparency site by the deadline set by legislation, House Bill 122 of 2007.

Unlike Minnesota, though, Hawaii’s site is not only past due: According to a policy advisor to Gov. Linda Lingle (R), the administration has no plans to develop the database. Financial and departmental obstacles have been voiced as reasons for the delay.

The “obstacles” manifested themselves as far back as 2007. According to Jamie Story, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, had creation of a transparency database been a high priority for Hawaii’s legislators or the governor, it could be in operation today.

Story met several months ago with one of Lingle’s policy advisors to discuss spending transparency. At that meeting, Story explained how other states have become transparent with minimal amounts of money and by using existing resources. Despite that meeting, Story believes no other transparency options have been or are being seriously considered by the Lingle administration.

Hawaii Senate Bill 659 is pending in the 2009 legislative session and would address some of the reasons Lingle has voiced for delaying the creation of a transparency site. But given what other states have accomplished, further legislation would appear unnecessary.

Doug El Sanadi ([email protected]) is state policy analyst for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the research and educational arm of the 363,000-member National Taxpayers Union.