Bringing Sunshine to State Spending

Jan 15, 2008

Is the state spending money in the right areas to help our students succeed? How much has congestion improved for the billions spent on transportation? Are the investments taxpayers make in the Departments of Corrections and Social and Health Services actually improving public safety and well being?

These are basic questions to which any taxpayer should be able to get answers quickly and conveniently. This is especially true since modern technology makes accessing large amounts of information easier than ever. Unfortunately, the opportunity to learn these answers is currently limited and difficult to achieve.

The current lack of spending transparency is not the result of some deep Machiavellian conspiracy to hide budget information from the public. Instead it is simply a failure of elected officials to keep up with the times by providing taxpayers with a free, easy-to-use website where people can find these details.

A solution to this lack of budget transparency problem is available. In 2006 the federal government enacted a law that provides a roadmap for states on how to allow citizens to find out about government spending.

Recently, President Bush recognized the federal government’s need to be more accountable to Americans for the nearly $1 trillion Congress appropriates each year in discretionary spending. In 2006 he signed the bipartisan Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. The Act was co-sponsored by senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and was passed unanimously by Congress.

The new law creates a free searchable website that allows citizens to track the recipients of all federal funds. The privacy of individuals is protected. For example, one can’t look up how much someone receives in monthly Social Security.

Many states are also moving forward with this type of reform such as Hawaii, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, South Carolina, Missouri and Texas.

Similar bipartisan proposals have been introduced here in Washington. State representatives Mark Miloscia (D-30th District) and Dan Kristiansen (R-39th District) introduced HB 2342 last session, “to make the state budget information available to the public.” The bill would create a free, searchable website for use by the public and provide details about state spending and agency performance. The proposal, however, did not receive a public hearing.

Earlier this month Sen. Val Stevens (R-39th District) and nine co-sponsors introduced a similar bill for the 2008 Legislative Session (SB 6387). State Auditor Brian Sonntag (D) and Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) have also voiced support for this type of reform as well as members of the Senate Ways and Means committee (Senators Oemig, Hewitt, Carrell, Roach and Schoesler).

If the state had a searchable budget website, rather than having to dig through thousands of pages of budget documents, the public could find details on state spending hyperlinked to a plain-English explanation of what it meant, broken down further by how the money is spent all the way to the program level. Performance information for the spending would also be included. That way, any citizen with internet access could go to a single source for the public spending information he is looking for.

A free searchable budget transparency website will not cure all budget problems, but it would go a long way toward preventing waste and improving government performance.

Thomas Jefferson knew this long before the advent of the internet. In 1802 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.”

Based on the experiences of other states, implementing this reform would not be expensive, and cost should not dissuade elected officials from moving forward with it. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of a searchable budget website becoming a reality is if our elected officials fail to make it a priority. This is especially true since Microsoft is willing to help the state if asked.

Improving citizen access to information about public spending will not only help improve the budget decision making process of elected officials, but also help connect taxpayers with the spending decisions being made on their behalf. This reform is a win-win for everyone, except possibly for those who fear something embarrassing about public spending might be revealed.