Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government. ”
Today, the Arizona Senate Committee on Appropriations will consider an important measure from Senator Jonathon Paton which would require all levels of government (including cities, towns, counties, school districts) to disclose in detail how they spend taxpayer money. It would also require the state to maintain a website where anyone could get quick access to information on every government in Arizona that has the power to levy taxes on them. Those governments would post details on a website about every expenditure and tax revenue collected, like an online checkbook register for city hall or the county courthouse.
This bill also would require government agencies and departments to establish performance benchmarks and list them for the public to review. Accurate crime statistics and details about county prosecutions would have to be reported as well.
For little cost, information about government operations can be made available 24 hours a day to people researching on their home computers or even on their cell phones. Most local governments have websites now, but the information they post often is so general that it doesn’t provide any real insight into how it conducts the people’s business.
The primary objection to these websites is that they will be costly to create and maintain. But experience proves otherwise. State Treasurer Dean Martin launched a transparency website in the midst of budget cuts, and states like Virginia, South Carolina, Kansas and Texas put spending information online using only existing resources. Nebraska created its spending transparency website, which does much of what this bill would require, for only $40,000. Some software companies, like ProcureNetworks, are even offering software to government agencies for free.
I have a question for those who use cost as a reason to oppose spending transparency: considering the recent declines in government revenue, how can we afford not to engage citizens more comprehensively in determining spending priorities and hunting down new efficiencies?
Taxpayers who foot government’s bills deserve the widest possible access to information on how their money is spent. Perhaps then Thomas Jefferson’s vision will be fully realized.
Dr. Byron Schlomach is an economist and the director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the Goldwater Institute.
Goldwater Institute: Piercing the Fog: A Call for Greater Transparency in State and Local Government
Arizona Legislature: Senate Bill 1264
State Treasurer Dean Martin: AZCheckbook.com
SunshineReview.org: Cost of Transparency Websites