State government could require transparency of local expenses

Wayne Hoffman Government Transparency, Statism

I’m a bit of a policy wonk. I think one of the more entertaining things I can do is curl up on the sofa with a nice government dataset, a packet of interagency memos and an enthralling volume of departmental budgets. I believe that the 1939 Idaho session laws are as enjoyable a read as Harry Potter. And I mean that as a compliment to J.K. Rowling.

My obsession with the minutia of government is with good reason. Government can do some crazy things sometimes, and documents and data tell stories that the hired hand — mayors, county commissioners and other elected officials — tend to not tell.

I’m hopeful that liberty-loving citizens will be as enthusiastic about those government details as I am. But more importantly, I’d like for state lawmakers to be interested, too.

Right now, the state dishes out millions of dollars in sales tax revenue to local communities, but they express little interest in what happens to the cash once it leaves the state treasury. They should care. They could require accountability as a condition of receiving state cash, and that would be a positive policy change.

Recent weeks have convinced me that Idahoans — especially state officials — should care about the minutia of government and demand heightened scrutiny for how tax dollars are spent.

In the short time he has been researching and writing, the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s investigative reporter, Jay Howell, has uncovered fascinating stories about government spending that seems on the brink of absurd: Howell found that the city of McCall spent more than $5,000 throwing a Christmas party and prime rib dinner for city employees. He wrote that the city of Boise spent $25,000 on bike lockers and $20,000 to decorate traffic boxes in the city’s downtown corridor.

In my own research, I’ve found local governments spending money on all sorts of travel, club memberships, lobbyists and public relations. All this comes at a time we’re told cities, counties and school districts are struggling to make ends meet.

Each year, the state of Idaho gives cities and counties a cut off the top from the state’s sales tax collections. Last year, this so-called “revenue sharing” netted more than $137 million for cities and counties. That’s down more than 10 percent from the previous year, but still it’s 36 percent more than local governments were getting from the state in 2000. Some might consider that a windfall.

The folks who pull the levers in city and county government are ultimately accountable for how well — or how poorly — money gets spent. At least once a month, these local elected officials are supposed to receive and review a list of every expense incurred by the government. Those expenses are then supposed to be approved or disapproved. The documents these elected officials review are a matter of public record.
Although the documents for oversight of local governments already exist, they usually never venture beyond the dais on city council night. This is where the Legislature comes in.

In 2003, lawmakers toyed with reducing revenue sharing in order to help balance the budget. There’s been light talk about making an attempt to cut state aid to local governments in the next legislative session. Such a move is fraught with political pitfalls, and I doubt it will happen. Cut funding for local governments and local officials will scream that the Legislature is responsible for the lack of police and fire protection.

A better option: Use technology to boost transparency. The Legislature could require cities and counties to post their expenditure reports online.

I’m not big on governments mandating chores for other governments, but the state does have a vested interest in knowing that sales tax charged to Idaho taxpayers doesn’t just going into a black hole.

Some local governments are already posting their spending information online. They find it’s not hard to do, it doesn’t cost anything extra, and it’s universally welcomed by local constituents.

Apart from the fact it gives policy wonks like me a fun way to spend a weekend, it’s good public policy that might just save taxpayers some money. And believe me, we could really use the break.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].