by Roman Goerss and Diane E. Brown
The Arizona Senate soon will decide the fate of a long-overdue proposal to make the budgets of counties, cities, towns and public schools available on the Internet. But without public support, this groundbreaking measure, House Bill 2282, may never see a final vote.
In the last few years, government watchdog organizations and concerned citizens have called for state and local governments to make their budgets available online. Currently, a majority of states have passed laws or executive orders to put most or all of their budgets into some form of searchable, online database.
Despite being a recent innovation, several states have already enjoyed enormous success. In Texas, for example, State Comptroller Susan Combs put the budgets of every state agency online, and in less than a year the system identified $8.6 million in savings for the state.
According to Combs, the system "provides transparency to taxpayers, and . . . made our own operations more transparent to us . . . We were able to better analyze where and how we were spending money within our agency."
Transparency helps government employees and the public to save taxpayers money and improves efficiency. Governments have found ways to consolidate purchases for bulk items and to help departments share resources that might otherwise be duplicated.
Utah estimates several million dollars in savings from fewer information requests alone. Several other states have reported millions of dollars of savings from bulk-purchase discounts, consolidated contract negotiation and eliminating redundancy from the newly transparent departments.
Transparency also allows taxpayers to see exactly where their money is going and more precisely hold their public officials accountable.
A local TV station recently claimed that city officials in Goodyear spent $100 on one bottle of wine and $125 on a nail salon. That may not sound like much, but multiply such practices by the 639 local governments in Arizona and their various officials, and lots of little items could add up rapidly.
Waste in government can inflict significant damage to the public treasury, and in the current economic crisis, that's something Arizona literally cannot afford.
Transparency Web sites open windows for agency administrators to see how other departments save money and are held accountable.
The best of these public Web sites are updated regularly and include checkbook-level information about public contracts, tax credits and other subsidies. They include information about independent public authorities. They provide past years' expenditures for comparison. And they make information easily searchable.
These Web sites, of course, require some resources to operate. But at least 10 states that have ordered full-transparency Web sites have been able to pay for them with existing department funds.
The Legislature's own summary of HB 2282 anticipates it would cost less than $150,000 a year for all local governments combined to provide such disclosure. Even if appropriated money is necessary, the cost will likely be surpassed quickly by discovered savings.
Passing HB 2282 would eliminate redundancy, curb fraud, encourage competition, spread good management practices and heighten accountability to the public. As the director of Texas' program put it, "in this uncertain economy, no one has dollars to waste . . . We need to be sure we are showing the same common sense, resourcefulness and thrift as any hard-working family."