- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

Well, you know, it is our money - or at least it was, before government helped itself to a sizable portion and called it revenue.

That we’ve rarely, as taxpayers, had a clear idea just what those guys in government were doing with all that tax money isn’t one of the nicer things to be said about democratic governance.

Let’s look on the bright side, even so. Light is starting to shine in the recesses where all those billions lie, waiting to be spent. The transparency movement in government finance is spreading fast. There’s finally a way to see how government spends our money - just by going online.

The federal government has a Web site where you can find out who is spending how much on what. Twelve states also have such sites, with at least two more likely to start up this year. That’s not all. In Texas, more than 160 school districts now post check registers where taxpayers can see who is spending what.

What’s going on? The following news is best absorbed from a seated position: A conservative Republican senator and a liberal Democratic senator teamed up to pass the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. Their names: Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Barack Obama of Illinois.

The idea: Let taxpayers tap into, free of charge, a publicly searchable Web site (www.usa-spending.gov) to learn what their money is buying, or not buying, these days. The federal Web site shows all federal grants and contracts and access to data on most payments of more than $25,000.

Various state officials rubbed their chins. Hmm. Why wouldn’t this work for states? It would and does, actually. Kansas took upon the challenge first, in 2007. Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas followed suit.

A dozen states now have their own transparency Web sites, on which are found listings and descriptions of programs whose existence, as well as cost, was once a secret to most voters.

The Web speaks in ways displeasing to the old-style bureaucrat whose aim was to run the show with the least outside interference possible. The more transparency you have in government, the more freedom you have in life. In short, transparency frees the voters and binds the politicians.

What do you find on these liberating Web sites? Let’s look at the one Texas set up under the aegis of the Comptroller of Public Accounts.

First option is a search of state agencies; the second, a search of vendors. The taxpayer can also search spending categories and purchasing codes.

The Web site advises, with an openness foreign to old understandings of citizen-government relationships, “For the highest level of detail, go to the Purchasing Code Search, which includes small dollar purchases by the state’s largest state agencies - down to the pencils.” Now that’s detail!

But it’s something else, potentially - namely, good government. A government accountable for what it spends with the tax money its citizens hand over isn’t disqualified from making mistakes. It’s disqualified from escaping the consequences of those mistakes.

The more voters know about their government, the better, smarter decisions they’ll be able to make at the polls. That’s why the transparency Web sites have the potential to change the terms in which we debate our differences. It lets us distinguish between truth and bluster.

Note the word “potential.” What if too few citizens go to the trouble of accessing the various transparency Web sites? What if too many lose interest or fail to understand? That’s always the risk with democratic governance. It works insofar as people make it work, through study and participation.

The transparency Web sites afford us the opportunity to understand with an ease unknown to our grandparents the range and breadth and cost of government. Hold on, let’s modify that assertion: Our grandparents didn’t encounter government programs of the cost and dimensions we apparently take for granted in the 21st century. In urgent respects we have to work harder than they ever did at learning, clarifying, understanding. But at least now we have the tools to help us become informed citizens.

Better get started, hadn’t we?

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist and a research fellow for the Institute for Policy Innovation.

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