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Patrick Gannon: A transparently good idea for local government finances

RALEIGH – One thing I’ve noticed in 16 years covering government and politics is that it’s often difficult to find out exactly how local governments spend taxpayer dollars. Details are often sparse and difficult to obtain and often don’t come in a format that makes them easy to understand.

I’ve attempted in the past to get check registers or similar information from local governments to show how every tax dollar was spent, only to be told that wasn’t possible.

Really?

A provision in the Senate budget aims to remedy that. As a reporter, it might be my favorite part of a more than 500-page spending plan offered by the Senate.

The provision, if included in the final state budget compromise, would require counties, cities and local education agencies to post budget and spending data on their websites beginning next spring. The information would have to be posted in a user-friendly fashion, with easy-to-use search features and in formats that can be downloaded and analyzed by the tax-paying public. State agencies would have to do the same.

The sites would have to include information on receipts and expenditures from and to all sources, including vendor payments, updated monthly. Government agencies would have to post data in similar fashions so that interested residents could make comparisons.

If the websites are done well and the governments comply, imagine all of the intriguing applications. Without much fuss, we could find out which cities bring in the most revenue from garbage collection or parking fees, for example. We could compare the amount of money spent by cities on police officers or by counties on teachers. We could easily find out how much money each municipality receives from the state and for what purpose. When city council members and county commissioners say there is “no fat” in their budgets, constituents could easily determine whether they’re telling the truth. I could go on and on.

Since taking over state government a few years ago, Republicans have clearly tried to encourage – and sometimes forced – local governments to reduce spending. They’ve taken from local governments several revenue sources, including involuntary annexation and privilege taxes.

This is another step in that direction, for all levels of government. Requiring government agencies to show in detail what they are doing with tax dollars would be a deterrent to wasteful spending, which we all know happens and often goes unnoticed. It might also have the desirable side effect of deterring corruption in bidding practices and contracting.

Along the same lines, the conservative John Locke Foundation recently released a report recommending that the General Assembly require all 100 counties to report on the Internet their spending on economic development activities, including cash incentives. The foundation sought to find out how much money each county was spending on economic development. “Data were much more difficult to collect and interpret than was anticipated,” according to the report, “Economic Incentives: County by County,” which is available at www.johnlocke.org.

That shouldn’t be the case.

And cities, counties, boards of education and all other public agencies have no ground to stand on if they claim the new mandate would cost them too much or put too much of a strain on their resources.

The outcry from constituents when they see how their tax dollars are being spent should prompt reduced spending that should easily cover the cost – and then some.

It’s not their money. It’s ours. And it’s difficult to understand why this isn’t a requirement already.

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.

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