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Hoffman: Idaho needs transparency in government

Hoffman: Idaho needs transparency in government

Wayne Hoffman
January 25, 2009
Wayne Hoffman
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January 25, 2009

I'm one Idaho taxpayer who is delighted that state government is undergoing major surgery. Every time the state adds 6 percent onto the price of the things I buy, I imagine ways I'd spend that money if I were not giving it to the government. And I'll be blunt about it. In 2003, I thought the Legislature did a poor job analyzing state spending and cutting waste. Sure, they cut some, but not enough to avoid raising taxes during an economic downturn.

Six years later, the Legislature has a chance to set things right, to do some real soul searching, figure out government's role and leave the rest to businesses, communities and individuals.

But Idaho lawmakers can do more. Even after the budgets are winnowed, the state should put its cards on the table and reveal every last detail of how state government spends taxpayer dollars.

This is information I used to review all the time as a reporter. Poring over spreadsheets, I would often find that the same state agencies that screamed the loudest about budget cuts were the ones quietly tucking money away for a year-end spending spree that included generous bonuses, new cars, computers and other electronic gizmos.

But today, these expenditures need not take place under the cover of darkness, and taxpayers need not wait for an investigative reporter to come along and sort through the data. Today, we have the technology to make even the most minuscule government spending available for public review over the Internet, just one or two mouse clicks away.

This is not a new concept. It is not a partisan concept. All across the country, Democrat, Republican and non-partisan elected officials are utilizing new technology as a means to create unprecedented transparency in government.

Through state and local Web sites, governments are posting on the Internet every detail of every expenditure. This month, the Eagle City Council passed a resolution to open its books to Internet review.

Even President Obama has worked on legislation to boost transparency within the federal government. Some of the more ambitious projects under way in other states allow any ordinary taxpayer to sign on to state Web sites and use keywords to search a spending database.

The extra scrutiny not only boosts confidence in government; it also results in the discovery of spending that is unnecessary or should be eliminated, resulting in savings of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

State Controller Donna Jones included $250,000 in her budget request for next year to launch a transparency in government project in Idaho. And while I take no particular joy in recommending such a large expenditure, this is one that could actually result in smaller, more efficient and more accountable government. It is, after all, a perfectly appropriate way for government to spend taxpayer money, because it helps meet the twin goals of adding a new level of inquiry for state spending and potentially weeding out the garbage.

Not long ago, Jones told legislative budget writers that because of the economic downturn, she has decided to scrap the request. But I still think there's merit in the proposition.

In Texas, the state spent $300,000 developing a transparency Web site, and Comptroller Susan Combs believes the program has saved millions of dollars. Among other things, the effort brought to light unnecessary duplication in contracts and produced cheaper ways of meeting government goals.

In Idaho, I would imagine that a transparency project could have prevented some agencies from loading up on equipment, bonuses and travel in a mad dash to spend year-end cash, as I witnessed over and over, even in lean years.

There's another reason this program is important: As Idaho's budget hovers closer and closer to the $3 billion mark, an inappropriate expenditure of, say, $50 becomes nothing more than a rounding error to agency bean counters.

My theory is this: If the state government can concern itself with collecting sales taxes six cents at a time, government should also be concerned with making sure each six cents is spent wisely. And taxpayers should be able to determine that for themselves.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.
(Published in the Idaho Statesman, 1/25/2009 http://tinyurl.com/bzlpqj)

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