A bill that would require local governments to disclose how they spend our money passed the House Government committee a few weeks ago. One member who voted against HB 2615 said transparency was a good concept but the cost of posting information might not be worth the trade-off.
The bill would modify state law to require local governments to post online comprehensive information about expenditures by 2011, something state government will also be required to do in 2011. Besides the general benefit of bringing accountability to government spending, this requirement would eliminate the necessity of charging citizens for information requested under public records laws.
Currently, the financial costs and time of obtaining public records are borne by the curious taxpayer. Often this requires repeated requests and clarifications. In a 2008 audit of open records compliance, researchers from the University of Arizona found that 40 percent of school districts and 44 percent of police departments ignored the law entirely. Once a request has been fulfilled, often the costs of copying information must be covered by the requester.
Posting financial information online will involve an initial expense to the government, although many states and local governments have found economical ways to do it. For example, Missouri's spending website is one of the most comprehensive and is estimated to have cost under $300,000. Moreover, if there is an expense that is worthwhile, it is an effort that will ensure greater thrift and accountability in government. Exposing one overly generous contract or particularly wasteful state agency could recover the cost of creating the website. I, for one, think that's a fair trade-off.
Byron Schlomach, Ph.D, is director of economic policy at the Goldwater Institute.
Goldwater Institute: Piercing the Fog: A Call for Greater Transparency in State and Local Government
Sunshine Review: Cost of state transparency websites
Arizona Legislature: HB 2615