Transparency Is the Key to Government Accountability

Published October 25, 2007

It’s an honor to be here today at The Heartland Institute’s Fourth Annual Emerging Issues Forum.

Not only do I appreciate the opportunity to share with you some exciting budget reforms to help you restore accountability to the taxpayer, but it’s a welcome change to be amidst fellow fiscal conservatives.

Usually when speaking to the tax-and-spend audiences back home, I think to myself, “So this is what it feels like to be Rex Grossman in the Bears’ defensive locker room.”

Speaking of the Bears, their painful experience this season provides a nice transition into the topic I want to discuss with you today.

It’s often said a good defense wins championships. If that were entirely true we’d be talking about the Super Bowl champion Bears instead of the Colts.

Now while a good defense doesn’t hurt, I don’t think any Bears fans here today will argue against the importance of a high-powered offense.

Transparency: An Offensive Weapon

Embracing transparency reforms helps provide us an unstoppable offensive weapon to redefine the budget debate in our favor.

For far too long we have been content to rely on a defensive strategy against the efforts of government to expand its size and tax reach. While this effort has resulted in some victories, in order to secure future success we need to improve our offense.

So what tools do we have available to accomplish our goals?

In our defensive game plan we have adopting and protecting spending limits and protected reserve accounts. On the offensive side are implementing searchable budget Web sites, increasing the time for the public and lawmakers to review tax and spending bills, and performance-based budgeting.

Consider the impact millions of investigative journalists could have on the state’s budget debate.

Or what would happen if voters could look for themselves to see where their tax dollars are spent and evaluate whether the results delivered warrant additional investments.

While such a development may put me out of a job, giving Joe Taxpayer access to the same information his elected officials have would put him back in the driver seat during a state’s budget and tax debate.

No longer would taxpayers have to rely on special-interests groups and their self-serving agendas to learn whether more spending and taxes are necessary.

So how do we bring about this voter empowerment?

Efforts Underway

Many efforts are currently underway. In fact, your own Senator, Barack Obama, has played a role at the federal level. Teaming up with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, also known as enemy number one to pork barrel spenders, Obama co-sponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, a Google-like search tool that allows taxpayers to see how their tax dollars are being spent on federal contracts, grants, and earmarks.

The fact that Obama and Coburn teamed up on this reform should help dispel any arguments that this effort is a partisan attack against government.

When asked about this effort, Sen. Obama noted, “Every American has the right to know how the government spends their tax dollars, but for too long that information has been largely hidden from public view.”

As we heard earlier today from Sandra Fabry of Americans for Tax Reform, many states are also moving forward with this reform.

Especially with today’s exploding advances in technology, it is hard to look taxpayers in the eye and tell them it is too difficult or too expensive for state governments to provide them with an online Web site that allows easy access to all state spending information as well as details on the performance of those investments.

72-Hour Window

Simply having access to the details on state spending, however, is not enough to change the budget dynamic. Voters must also be given adequate time during the budget debate to consider the impact of the billions in spending being requested.

This is why the American Legislative Exchange Council, the nation’s largest nonpartisan, individual membership organization of state legislators, recently adopted model legislation to require that the public be given at least 72 hours to review tax and spending bills before a hearing is held or the bills are voted on.

Having a “time out” before tax or spending bills could be enacted would not only benefit the public but lawmakers as well.

I know this may come as a shock to some, but lawmakers rarely have the opportunity to read the hundred-pages-plus budgets before they are asked to vote on billions of dollars in taxpayer investments.

This is true at least in my home state of Washington.

Earlier this year lawmakers there adopted the state’s 2007-09 budgets. These appropriation bills (operating, capital, and transportation) totaled nearly 1,000 pages.

Realizing the sheer length and complexity of these budget bills, not to mention the fact they seek to spend billions in taxpayer dollars, one would think lawmakers and the public would have at least a day or two to review the details before a public hearing or vote was held.

Instead, within hours of the first public introduction of the bills hearings occurred.

This is the equivalent of asking someone to do a book report on War and Peace an hour after first being handed a copy of the novel.

And just like one would expect such a book report to receive an “F,” so too do most of our state budgets when graded for sustainability and performance.

Floor Amendments

As for the vote on the bills, in Washington we customarily use the practice of striker bills to amend the budget on the floor and then seek final approval. A striker bill means that the entire text of the bill after the title is replaced. Despite this whole-cloth change to the budget, no additional time is provided for lawmakers or the public to review the details prior to the final vote.

And we wonder why voters question how the government is spending their money.

By providing the public at least three days to adequately review budget and tax bills, instead of just a host of special-interest groups monopolizing public hearings, Joe Taxpayer may actually have time to provide meaningful feedback to his lawmakers on the proposals. Coupled with the searchable budget Web site reform previously discussed, the public will have access to the details necessary to determine whether the spending proposed reflects their priorities or is actually accomplishing anything.

This means public hearings may actually become a time for the public to influence the debate, instead of being a mere formality on the path to the budget’s adoption.

Performance-Based Budgeting

The combination of a searchable budget Web site and a 72-hour review period for budget bills should also help to highlight whether a state is truly using performance-based budgeting.

With a million prying eyes scouring the details of state spending, questions will undoubtedly arise as to the performance results for those tax dollars. If in fact a state is using performance-based budgeting, the answers to these questions will be readily available. If not, pressure will build to move in this direction while adding the performance information to the searchable Web site.

Aside from the obvious benefit of providing taxpayers a valuable tool in understanding how their money is being spent, adopting budget transparency reforms will help improve the defensive tools we currently have available to control government’s growth.

Just as Bears’ linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs keep opposing team’s running backs in check, a meaningful state spending limit and reserve account help to keep taxes and spending from running out of control.

But how do budget transparency reforms help strengthen state spending limits and budget reserves?

Voters are often told by big spenders that the budget has been scrubbed clean for efficiencies and there is no possible way the priorities of the people can be delivered within the state’s spending limit or without tapping the budget reserve funds.

Without access to the details of state spending, taxpayers are in a poor position to counter these assertions. If, however, millions of watchdogs are able to identify areas for improvements or laughable spending priorities, the advantage falls to the taxpayer to be able to make the case there are opportunities for savings or resource reprioritization within the spending limit and without tapping budget reserves.

Going back to my football analogy, no team would go into a game without an offensive and defensive game plan. Instead, each coach has a different opinion about the plays that will be called.

In the same regard we should reframe the budget debate to insist that these budget tools–searchable Web sites, 72-hour review periods, performance-based budgeting, spending limits, and reserve accounts–are not optional. The political debate should not be whether or not to use these tools, but should instead focus on the spending decisions made within the framework defined by the mandatory use of these tools.

Embracing budget transparency tools will not be a cure-all for a state’s budget problems. But transparency and disclosure go a long way toward preventing waste and improving spending performance.

Thomas Jefferson knew this in 1802 when he wrote, “We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”

Because of our complex tax and regulatory requirements a merchant’s books may no longer be the model for government’s, but the fact remains that any taxpayer should be able to quickly learn the details about state spending and see what performance results are achieved.

Anyone who says otherwise should be reminded it’s our money, not the government’s, and we are entitled to know the return on our investment.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan in the movie Knute Rockne, it’s time that we use these budget tools to go out there and win one for the taxpayer!

Jason Mercier <[email protected]> is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.