Monday, August 11, 2008

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry began posting all of his office expenses on the Internet two years ago, he kicked off the financial transparency trend that many state and local governments now are joining.

In 2006, the items listed by Mr. Perry, a Republican, ranged from how much he paid his secretary to how much he spent for lunch.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs quickly expanded the program to cover more than a dozen state agencies, and state Rep. Mark Strama, a Democrat, then led a bipartisan drive to codify Mrs. Combs’ efforts into a statewide law.

Since then, 11 other states - Kansas, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Minnesota, Washington, Utah, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland and Arizona - have passed financial transparency laws, placing records of government expenditures within the reach of the curious on the Internet.

“I’ve always been amazed at the ability of technology to make very difficult processes so much easier,” said Mr. Strama, whose business background included devising an online procedure that registered 700,000 new Texas voters “without breaking a sweat.”

“Government budgets are too large for any individual to absorb,” Mr. Strama said, “but large networks of people working independently online can now do this.”

Through the Internet, he said, “diffuse populations are capable of doing amazing things.” He cited the blogosphere’s role in publicizing the holds that Sens. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, and Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, placed on 2006 legislation, which radically increased the financial transparency of the federal government.

Sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, and Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, the bill required full disclosure of all entities or organizations receiving federal funds. Once their holds were identified publicly, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Byrd relented, allowing the Coburn-Obama transparency bill to sail through the Senate.

Last year, Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, and Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, formed their own alliance to urge governors to duplicate at the state level what Mr. Coburn and Mr. Obama achieved at the federal level.

“We urge you to work expeditiously to make the full text of all your written state expenditures and contracts, ranging from procurement of goods and services to grants, leaseholds and labor contracts, available to the public on the Internet in a clear and searchable manner,” Mr. Nader and Mr. Norquist wrote to the governors in July 2007.

Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma have implemented their laws.

Executive orders requiring Web-based financial transparency have been issued by Republican Govs. Matt Blunt of Missouri, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Jim Gibbons of Nevada, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Sarah Palin of Alaska, who put her state’s check register online.

Missouri, South Carolina and Alaska have gone live online since their governors issued executive orders. Most other states with transparency laws will begin implementing them in January.

“In July 2007, Missouri put online every transaction involving state money over the past eight years,” said Ed Martin, who was chief of staff to Mr. Blunt at the time.

Mr. Martin said the state Web site revealed that “our own team had been wasting money.” It was a “gotcha” moment that was quickly fixed, he said. In its first year, the Missouri transparency Web site received 7.5 million hits.

The Oklahoma site also identifies “corporate welfare,” including investment tax credits and economic development funds doled out to millionaire businessmen, said state Sen. Randy Brogdon, a Republican who spearheaded the legislative effort. “Open it up and let the sunshine in” is his motto.

The transparency movement “is almost impossible to publicly politically oppose,” said Mr. Norquist, who expects more than a dozen states to adopt transparency laws over the next year.

“Things that happened in the past will not happen in the future” because government contracts will be online for all to see, including competing bidders, Mr. Norquist said.

The Texas comptroller’s office saved $2.3 million by examining the information that is on the state’s transparency Web site. “We consolidated five contracts for toner and saved $73,000,” said a spokesman.

Once citizens see how their neighbors are spending their tax money, the transparency wave likely will have its greatest impact at the local level, where it is now spreading, Mr. Norquist said.

“School board candidates will be armed with $1 million worth of opposition research,” he said. “Transparency Web sites will bring more turnover to local governments that term limits brought to state government.”

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