States See the Need for Spending Transparency

Published July 1, 2007

This spring several states either passed or went to the verge of passing legislation that would mandate the creation of comprehensive databases detailing government expenditures in a clear and consistent format accessible to all taxpayers. Other states are just gearing up or are already drafting legislation for next year.

Oklahoma became the first state to legislate spending transparency, inspired by federal spending transparency efforts led by a favorite son, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK). Coburn was joined by Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in taking the lead on the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which passed last year and mandates the creation of a Web-based database for federal grants and contracts.

Unanimous Support in Oklahoma

Oklahoma state Sens. Randy Brogdon (R-Owasso) and Jay Paul Gumm (D-Durant) introduced legislation February 5 mandating the creation of a state spending Web site.

The Taxpayer Transparency Act passed both legislative chambers unanimously, in the Senate on March 1 and in the House on April 10. To be able to make minor technical corrections, the Senate rejected amendments to the House bill, and a conference was requested. The bill was in conference at press time, but observers say the legislation will be passed and signed by Gov. Brad Henry (D) in the next few weeks.

Brandon Dutcher, vice president for policy at the Oklahoma Council on Public Affairs, who had joined Coburn to build the case for transparency in Oklahoma, explained the relevance of the issue. “Dr. Coburn and I made the argument last year that as conservatives, we favor low taxes, limited government, and spending limitations. Many of the people and organizations who fight for bigger government do so because, you guessed it, they receive taxpayer dollars.

“Those who take the king’s shilling do the king’s bidding. Taxpayers deserve to know who they are,” Dutcher continued.

Kansas Measure Passes

While the budget Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) of Kansas signed in April spends $526 million more than anticipated revenues, state Sen. Tim Huelskamp (R-Fowler) and state Rep. Kasha Kelley (R-Arkansas City) succeeded in getting attached to the budget Kelley’s “Taxpayer Transparency Act.” (See “Other States Take Up Transparency Measures,” Budget & Tax News, June 2007.)

Huelskamp said it was not an easy fight. Senate President Steve Morris (R-Hugoton) referred the bill to two different committees on February 28, and the issue was never allowed a hearing in the session in which it passed.

“I was not ready to see this critical issue of government accountability die,” Huelskamp said. “So when the state budget was being debated on the Senate floor, I offered an amendment requiring the implementation of the Taxpayer Transparency Act. By a narrow margin the amendment was successful and is now part of the Kansas budget.

“It is government by and of the people–so why shouldn’t they know exactly how their money is being spent?” Huelskamp continued.

Hawaii’s Law Limited

Hawaii also has passed legislation mandating the creation of an online government expenditure database. The legislation passed easily but is more limited than the Kansas law. For example, the Hawaii version includes a $25,000 threshold for disclosure.

“We would have liked to see them drop or even eliminate the disclosure threshold, but this bill is certainly an important step in the right direction,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Texas is likely this year to join Kansas, Hawaii, and Oklahoma in passing comprehensive spending transparency legislation.

Three bills by state Reps. Brian Hughes (R-Mineola), Ken Paxton (R-McKinney), and Corbin Van Arsdale (R-Houston), each of which focused on a different aspect of spending transparency, were rolled into state Rep. Mark Strama’s (D-Austin) House Bill 3430. It passed the House unanimously at the end of April and is currently moving through the Senate.

“Direct citizen access to information has already created a powerful additional check and balance on government and the media,” Strama said in an April 27 press statement.

Strama added, “With HB 3430, citizens will be able to conduct their own research and hold government accountable in ways that were not possible before.”

Bipartisan Support Everywhere

Virtually all measures to this effect across the country enjoy broad bipartisan support.

Alan Cobb, state director of Americans for Prosperity in Kansas, who pushed for and testified in favor of Kelley’s bill, explained why.

“Anybody, no matter right or left, wants responsible and effective and responsive government, and this will certainly help that,” Cobb said. “Nobody wants the government to be hiding things, and this is certainly not a ‘conservatives only’ issue by any means.”

‘Next New Big Thing’

Norquist, who has been working closely with legislators and activists on the issue, stressed the significance of the new transparency movement.

“In Silicon Valley they always talk about the next ‘new big thing’ that will transform America,” Norquist said. “I believe the next new big thing has arrived. This spending transparency movement has the potential of changing the way government is run once and for all–and for the better.

“We look forward to continuing to work with state legislators, governors, state constitutional officers, and activists on this important issue,” Norquist said.

Brogdon urges his peers around the country to join Oklahoma and the other states in passing this type of legislation.

“I would encourage every state legislature to pass a sunshine taxpayer transparency bill,” Brogdon said. “I was amazed at the overwhelming support from so many diverse groups. My greatest lesson learned was, ‘they can’t say yes unless you ask.’ Ask the taxpayers if they are happy with the way government is run, and you will find the answer is no.”

Sandra Fabry ([email protected]) is state government affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform.