Below is the text of an op-ed Amy Oliver, II’s director of Colorado Transparency Project, penned about the cost of making government more open and transparent. You can also find the op-ed online at the Denver Daily News and the Independence Institute.
Transparency doesn’t cost; it saves
By Amy Oliver
Two years ago freshman legislator Don Marostica introduced the Colorado Taxpayer Transparency Act. Believing everyone would embrace the simple concept that taxpayers have a right to know how and where their money is being spent, Representative Marostica thought his legislation to create an online, searchable database for all state revenues and expenditures – information that is already a matter of public record – would pass easily.
He was wrong. The bill died in committee. Forces bigger than Representative Marostica’s idea to bring transparency to Colorado ended up killing it.
The whopping $2 million fiscal note weighed down the legislation like concrete fins in the Cherry Creek Reservoir. Even when the state is awash in cash, that is a lot of taxpayer dollars just for a database. With the current economic situation, any legislation with that kind of fiscal note will be a tough sell this session.
However Representative Marostica and his legislation will be back this session. This time he is armed with co-sponsors, a coalition of citizens, and a cadre of states and organizations from both ends of the political spectrum supporting transparency.
He also is armed with proof that transparency doesn’t cost; actually it saves – money for both government and taxpayers, time for both government and taxpayers and reputations.
Democrat Governor of Kansas Kathleen Sebelius signed that state’s Taxpayer Transparency Act as part of the Kansas state budget in 2007. She signed stand alone transparency legislation in April 2008. Opponents of the measure claimed the cost would be upwards of $40 million. According to Americans for Tax Reform, a taxpayer watchdog group, the actual cost was $0.
On the Kansas Web site titled Kansas KanView (http://www.kansas.gov/kanview/) taxpayers can search revenues and expenditures by vendor, program, fund or agency.
Missouri Governor Matt Blunt instituted transparency in his state via executive order. The Web site MAP/Missouri Accountability Portal (http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov/MAP/Portal/Default.aspx) was created utilizing existing resources. Missouri taxpayers have access to revenues, expenditures, grants, contracts and state employees’ salaries.
With these Web sites, Missouri and Kansas residents don’t have to pay government agencies for labor and research time for public records on expenditures and contracts. Conversely, government employees don’t have to take time away from providing state services in order to comply with public records requests.
Also the internet sites promote efficiency and competitive bidding. With access to contracts, businesses can evaluate whether they can offer goods and services to the state at lower prices. And government agencies can evaluate multiple contracts from various vendors and search for volume discounts.
In Texas, the transparency Web site Where the Money Goes (http://www.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/expendlist/cashdrill.php) cost $300,000 to develop but has saved the state millions because according to Comptroller Susan Combs it revealed duplicated contracts that could be consolidated.
While it appears that the transparency Web site will be a useful tool for taxpayer watchdogs and activists, it also comes to government’s defense when expenditures are legitimate. When a few state expenditures in Missouri raised eyebrows, a quick review from the Office of Administration revealed them to be “legitimate Department of Corrections expenses for special-needs products for female inmates in Missouri’s prison system.”
Responding to the inquires, Governor Blunt boasted “this is exactly how we envisioned the MAP site working when we created it.” The state even provides a phone number for taxpayers to report questionable spending. A story that could have developed in to a public relations nightmare for the Department of Corrections quickly was silenced because of easy access to facts. With more than 12 million hits on the MAP Web site, it appears that Missourians enjoy their Governor’s vision of transparency.
The movement towards transparent government did not begin at the state level. It actually started at the federal level in 2006 thanks to then Senator Barack Obama who sponsored legislation to put the nation’s expenditures and contracts online in a searchable database USA Spending. (http://www.usaspending.gov/)
On June 3, 2008, speaking on the floor of the US Senate, Obama said, “Whether you believe Government ought to spend more or spend less or just spend differently, we all should be able to agree that Government spending should be transparent and that public information ought to be accessible to the public.”
President-elect Obama is correct. What he and a number of states have discovered is that open, transparent government doesn’t cost taxpayers, it saves.
Amy Oliver is the director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute. For more information visit Colorado Spending Transparency (COST) at http://transparency.i2i.org.