Bills Would Boost Spending Transparency

(Updated 2:15 p.m. EDT, March 10, 2009)

When Iowa state Rep. Doug Struyk (R) wants specific data on his state's expenditures he first contacts his staff, which contacts the Legislative Service Bureau, which pulls a small portion of the budget and spending report and delivers it back to him.

The process can be lengthy and inconvenient, yet far easier for an elected official than a private citizen.

Struyk, along with a handful of Republican legislators, has proposed a bill requiring the state to create a searchable, consolidated, online database of the state's budget and spending report, free of charge and open to the public.

"It's an information age. People want to be able get on the Internet and see what's being spent and where. I think it's a great way to keep government spending in check and keep the populace educated as to what government's doing with their tax dollars," he said.

At least 10 other states - Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming - are considering or recently have considered legislation to create online budget and spending databases.

They could join more than a dozen other states which have passed similar legislation or issued executive or department orders since 2007. These states include Alaska , Arizona, Georgia , Kansas , Kentucky , Louisiana, Maryland , Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri , Oklahoma , Rhode Island , South Carolina , South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Washington .

The trend toward transparency comes as gaping state budget shortfalls and an influx of billions of dollars to states from President Obama's economic stimulus package have renewed public interest in tracking how and where their tax dollars are spent.

Obama himself has made government transparency a focal point. The president, who as a U.S. senator co-sponsored a bill creating an online database of federal government contracts and awards, also has touted a new Web site, Recovery.gov , devoted to educating the public on how federal stimulus dollars are being spent. The site, which went live last month, encourages users to comment on how the plan is affecting them, what's working and what isn't.

"Instead of politicians doling out money behind closed doors, the important decisions about where taxpayer dollars are invested will be yours to scrutinize," Obama said in a video address on the Web site.

Some states also are encouraging interactivity as they post information online.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D), for example, recently created an interactive budget calculator, and asked users, "What would you keep? What would you cut?"

With access to actual data and even information on the state's rainy day fund, users can attempt to eliminate the largest budget shortfall in the state's history, $855 million without raising taxes.

With few exceptions, online spending databases have garnered bipartisan support. Resistance focuses mainly on costs.

In Iowa, lawmakers were given a $500,000 estimate for their proposed online database. Supporters of the bill hope to reduce that figure to $50,000 or less, Struyk said.

In Oregon, some state representatives are concerned that because data sometimes are entered in different ways across state agencies, standardizing the site would increase costs.

In Wyoming, supporters of an online database are reviewing cost-saving options, including contracting out the Web site's operation to a private company.

"With that kind of a scenario, it might not really cost the state very much [money] at all, because this is already defined as public information. State agencies are already responsible for providing the information," Wyoming state Rep. Sue Wallis (R) said.

Aside from cost concerns, state governments also may feel that posting their spending online is "like letting someone into your house before you've had a chance to clean up the bathroom," said Greg Elin, a communications technology expert at the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan government transparency organization.

"Part of it is that people are nervous that they're going to be embarrassed, and then there are some cases where they're actually hiding sloppy procedures and they are hiding actual corruption, and they don't want to get caught in either of those," he said.

But few supporters of online spending databases believe that Web sites alone will achieve fully transparent government.

"This does not make our budget and spending transparent to citizens. This is a transparency improvement bill," said state Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R), a sponsor for Virginia's online spending database bill, which passed through both houses at the end of February. Cuccinelli is a candidate for attorney general in this fall's election.

Despite the fresh attention being paid to online budgeting, the push toward spending transparency is long-standing.

More than 30 years ago, the federal government began centralizing financial records. Budget and spending reports from various government agencies were gathered into a single location through consolidated accounting practices.

That was an important milestone on the path toward information-sharing and increased transparency, Elin said.

"That drive toward consolidated accounting has been happening in tandem with and driven by new digital technologies. First, you have this organizational drive and then you have a new venue to put it on, which is the Web," Elin said.

The 2006 Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, the legislation co-sponsored by Obama and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (R), is credited with spurring efforts to create similar online database in many states.

Among states, Kansas' online spending report has been cited as a model for other states. The program, KanView, now allows users to sort revenue and expenditures by agency, fund, program, item and vendor.