Deirdre Cummings and Phineas Baxandall

Opening state's purse

By Deirdre Cummings and Phineas Baxandall
June 11, 2009
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AMID ALL the dark news in this year's difficult budget, a ray of light would bring significant government reform. With declarations of support from both Democrats and Republicans, the Senate unanimously approved an amendment that would bring transparency and greater accountability to future state budgets.

Budget transparency, while not a new idea, can be revolutionary. Oversight of the public purse is a cornerstone of democratic government. It has become increasingly important as the state faces an economic crisis, a $5 billion budget shortfall, and a deterioration in public confidence as the third consecutive speaker of the House has been indicted.

The Senate budget amendment directs the secretary of Administration and Finance to maintain a searchable website detailing the costs, recipients, and purposes for all appropriations, including contracts, grants, subcontracts, tax expenditures, and other subsidies funded by the government. It will include all state revenue sources and expenses, even the 50 or so "quasi-public" agencies that are currently exempt from many forms of public oversight.

In the last few years, at least 23 states have mandated that citizens be able to access a searchable online database of government expenditures. These states have come to define "Transparency 2.0" - a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility. State governments are putting their checkbooks and IOUs online in a format that makes information "Google-able" in the way that we've come to expect outside of government.

Experience from the leading Transparency 2.0 states shows that these web portals are effective, low-cost tools that bolster citizen confidence, reduce contracting costs, and improve public oversight. The popularity of these sites can be seen in the millions of visits by citizens to Missouri's Accountability Portal website and in the increased number of businesses bidding for government contracts on Houston's transparency website.

Meanwhile, the comptroller of Texas reports a savings of $2.3 million. Estimates suggest that transparency websites save millions more by reducing the number of information requests from citizens and watchdog groups and by increasing the number of bids for public projects. The biggest savings may be from avoided scandals that we will never need to hear about. And as the Big Dig shows, lack of monitoring and late recognition of fraud can cost billions.

While each state is different, the new Transparency 2.0 tools have common characteristics:

Comprehensive: A user-friendly web portal provides citizens, lawmakers, businesses, and public watchdogs the ability to search detailed information about contracts, spending, subsidies, or special tax breaks anywhere in state government.

One-Stop: Citizens can search all government revenue and expenditures on a single website. Finding information should be easy, even without knowing exactly where to look.

One-Click Searchability: Citizens should be able to search with a single query or to browse common-sense categories. Consider how difficult finding information on the web would be without search engines. Locating data on government expenditures should be possible by recipient, amount, legislative district, granting agency, purpose, or keyword.

Despite Massachusetts's "high-tech" reputation, we have only barely begun to take advantage of these tools. State contracts and a growing number of business subsidy programs remain largely outside of public scrutiny. We can no longer afford lack of accountability.

The Commonwealth should become a leader in budget transparency. Doing so will help rebuild the frayed public trust in government. It will help us make better choices together about investments in our community. We all have a stake in the success of our schools, transportation system, public health, and other public structures.

The six-member conference committee that will determine whether to include the transparency measures in the final budget should remember that voters won't have the stomach to confront our budget crisis without greater accountability for where state dollars go. It will be important to bring the most sunlight to the gray days ahead.

Deirdre Cummings is the tax and budget program and legislative director for MASSPIRG. Phineas Baxandall is the senior analyst for tax and budget policy for US PIRG.

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