A basic principle of democratic society is the oversight of government actions by citizens. As society becomes more complex and multifaceted, however, so does government. Today, even in a relatively small state like Utah, citizens may have difficulty understanding what their elected representatives are doing.
To help remedy this problem, Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, has introduced legislation titled Transparency in Government Finance (SB38), which aims to help citizens access, understand and oversee government spending by creating a searchable online database. Although the details of his bill are still being hammered out, it builds on some of the best features of recent legislation in Oklahoma and Texas, states that are considered path-breakers in this issue.
The state of Utah has already distinguished itself for excellent government Web sites, including an existing site that provides information on all contracts and vendors. But it would be a mistake to limit efforts at transparency to a list of purchase amounts and suppliers. Indeed, this would be akin to learning the cost of everything but the value of nothing.
SB38 proposes financial information on the transparency Web site that would allow users to search and aggregate information in a variety of ways. Especially useful for taxpayers would be the ability to evaluate data according to program goal (say, subsidized school lunches or the "war on cheatgrass") rather than by type of purchase (building lease, meals, etc.). That way, taxpayers have more meaningful information about what they "buy" with their dollars. Following Texas' lead, transparency legislation would ideally require annual evaluations of the agreements that the state makes with businesses that promise jobs and other public benefits in return for tax breaks.
Legislators of both parties, as well as all agencies of state government, should welcome such legislation. A fully functioning financial transparency Web site holds the promise of increased public understanding of the wide variety of valuable public services that state government provides, and just how much it costs to do so. Transparency legislation is being promoted around the country. At the national level, the Federal Funding and Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 was one of the few issues to receive broad bipartisan support in recent years.
Still, one of the potential obstacles to the passage of this bill is the projected cost. In states where similar bills have been discussed, setup has been estimated to range from $100,000 in Oklahoma to $1.5 million in Texas, and ongoing costs are in the range of $200,000 to $300,000. Cost is an important issue in any legislation, of course, but these estimates are not out of line with what the state is already paying for projects that move information online. The fact that technology now makes possible a substantial advance in citizen oversight is an issue of fundamental importance to the functioning of democracy.
Another key aspect is the composition and rules of a proposed Transparency Board, which would determine the form and content of the Web site. To maintain its credibility with the public, this board should include at least one member who is neither a state employee or a member of the Legislature. Meetings of the board should be open and accessible to the public.Sen. Niederhauser is quick to point out that SB38 is only a first step. Refinements will need to be made over the span of several years. However, this bill is an important first step. We commend Sen. Niederhauser for his thoughtfulness in addressing this issue and urge his colleagues in the Legislature to approve the measure.
Allison Rowland is director of budget and policy at Voices for Utah Children, a nonpartisan, nonprofit multi-issue child advocacy organization.