Finding common ground on budget transparency

Photo by Anneke Els Paterson

As grassroots leaders who rarely get the opportunity to work on the same side of an issue, we’ve found common ground on one key issue — transparency in budget spending.

As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. And as Texas continues to make tough budget choices, average citizens need to be able to know how their tax dollars are being spent. That’s why even leaders in online transparency like Texas can and must keep improving citizen access to state spending numbers, offering new data and functionality so citizens can better understand and scrutinize our spending priorities.

Texas doesn’t currently provide comprehensive, checkbook-level data about all of its five largest economic development programs, which means billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent without adequate transparency or accountability.

According to the Texas Public Interest Research Group’s sixth annual Follow the Money report, many states are outpacing Texas in providing citizens with easy-to-understand budget spending information, and Texas has dropped several places in the overall rankings since last year.

The move toward top-flight transparency has been dramatic. Today, all states have checkbook-level spending online — a drastic change from just five years ago, when just over half of all states had such features. In 2015, all but two states allow users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, and 44 states provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs.

With budgets still strained, it’s vital that Texas continues to improve its fiscal transparency. Online transparency sites promote fiscal responsibility, prevent corruption and bolster public confidence in government. With difficult budget choices ahead, Texas residents should be able to see how each dollar gets spent. Whether you support increased investment in public transit infrastructure or advocate for property tax cuts, transparency is crucial to ensuring that our spending priorities are in line with our values and that powerful special interests aren’t dictating spending. 

An overwhelming majority — 91 percent — of Americans believe state officials have a responsibility to provide financial information to the public in a way that is understandable to average citizens. Surveys indicate that 30 percent of the public has actually tried to search online for information about how their state government raises and spends taxpayer dollars. In 2013, the Texas Transparency website received more than 560,000 page views.

Online spending transparency is already beginning to change the way that government does business. Many millions of dollars have been saved simply by reducing the number of expensive information requests the government has to deal with and the postage, paper and staff time that it takes to respond to them.

In addition, access to information is helping governments make smarter choices. For example, in 2010, based on data from its transparency website, Texas was able to renegotiate its copier machine lease to save $33 million over three years and negotiate prison food contracts to save $15.2 million.

This year, the comptroller’s office reported that it used its transparency website to evaluate state agency spending patterns. By monitoring contracts more closely and sourcing services from new vendors when the potential for cost-cutting could be identified, the state claims to have saved more than $163 million to date.

The biggest cost savings from transparency are likely the ones we’ll never hear about — because of the waste or abuse we avoid now that contractors and government officials know the public is looking over their shoulder.

Texans deserve the tools to shine a bright light on government and see where every dollar goes. The standards for transparency are advancing rapidly. Our elected officials need to continue to lead the charge in the march toward budget transparency.

Sara E. Smith

Staff attorney for Environment Texas

@Sara_in_ATX

Peggy Venable

Policy director of Americans for Prosperity-Texas

@pvenable

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