Here's a simple proposition: Taxpayers have the right to know how every cent, every dollar is spent by their local and state governments. Even though that proposition is fairly simple, the state Legislature has struggled with even the smallest of measures to bring more government transparency to Idaho.
Last year, the House split evenly on Hayden Republican Rep. Phil Hart's bill to require the state to start developing a spending database. Lawmakers said with the economy being so bad and tax revenues depressed, 2009 was not the year to start developing a state government transparency database. Meanwhile three dozen states, not including Idaho and not immune from economic malaise, are in various stages of developing databases that allow citizens to search and review state expenditures online.
No state government transparency database legislation was introduced this session. Supporters of government transparency decided to try and make some progress with schools districts. Even that ran into stiff opposition.
The House voted 54-12 last week for Hart's bill that would require school districts with at least 300 students to post all of their expenditures -- line by line -- on their district websites. Then, on Monday, the last day of the legislative session, the Senate balked. Despite changing the bill's transparency start date to December 2011, it wasn't enough to soothe opposition. Sen. Brent Hill of Rexburg argued that the release of expenditure information "is going to cause more confusion than anything else" and that requiring schools to disclose spending data "would be a lot of extra work for very little benefit."
The Senate voted 18-16 to kill the proposal. Hill then relented, got the Senate to reconsider the bill, and it passed with Lt. Gov. Brad Little's tie-breaking vote. The bill now goes to Gov. Butch Otter.
Early on, when the education lobby complained about the transparency legislation, House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, of Coeur d'Alene fired back: "They want and they want and they want. The first time we want them to do something for us, they scream bloody murder and kick and fight like little children," Nonini said. I'm with him on that. I hear a lot of squawking about how hard and how burdensome government transparency is to the government, but I hear very little about how hard taxpayers have to work without any real understanding of how that money is spent.
Frankly, the bill does very little except tell districts post expenditure information online so taxpayers can see what's being purchased and what's not. And while Idahoans will get transparency, they'll have to wait until almost 2012 to get it. Is that a victory for accountable government? Measured against other states, the answer is "barely."