Thursday, March 27, 2008

Financial Transparency Needed in Our SAU and Schools

The following piece appeared in the Union Leader.

Charlie Arlinghaus: State spending could be more transparent right now

14 hours, 23 minutes ago

NEW HAMPSHIRE should become more like Alaska. Alaska's governor has created a simple and transparent online database to view the details of any government expenditure of more than $1,000. The complete transparency of every detail of government makes government accountable and responsible, is supported by politicians of every ideology, and would eliminate corruption issues that are an increasing feature of our daily news coverage.

New Hampshire's tiniest town has little in common with Alaska. The financial books of the town of Windsor were closed to the public until the Windsor Coalition of Taxpayers sued to open them to the public. The next steps were all too familiar to residents of other towns. Investigators then found financial irregularities and money that has yet to be accounted for. An investigative audit led to the town's records being turned over to the Attorney General.

But with modern technology, none of this should ever happen. A transparency movement is spreading across the country to open the doors of government. Many transparency initiatives were started by executive order, as in Alaska. But increasingly, lawmakers and local officials are passing laws and ordinances to make transparency Web sites permanent.

In towns and state agencies in New Hampshire, taxpayers are often forced to wait for an audit to know how much money was spent and whether it's all accounted for. The first step to transparency is simply posting the town or agency's check register online.

Right away, any taxpayer can look and see every dollar spent and to whom it was paid. The new Alaska database isn't much more complicated than that. It's an Excel spreadsheet organized by payee, department and type of expense.

In transparency, getting started is just as important as designing the perfect system. Alaska's administrative commissioner admitted that the system isn't perfect,"but we wanted to get something out there to get started."

This is a stark contrast to New Hampshire's perfect-or-nothing approach. We've waited more than 14 months for something as simple as monthly updates of total state spending. We could have updates today, but officials have decided to wait until the state has one glorious new computer system for everyone's report to look identical.

Today in New Hampshire, citizens have access to spending data when a newspaper files a right-to-know request for specific information and decides to publish its findings. This information should be readily available to anyone who wants to know what government is doing.

In the town of Windsor, we are told that "at least $43,000 in collected tax money could not be accounted for." If a simple spreadsheet of the town's check register were posted online, we would have known earlier. The register would have shown every taxpayer who cared to look the amount of each deposit and every check written or cash withdrawal.

Obviously very few taxpayers would take the time to scrutinize every jot and title of the town's spending. But a few watchdogs would and we would all benefit from their scrutiny. Anyone who wished could balance the town's checkbooks and complain if $4 of interest or $400 of miscellaneous expenses were left out.

The comptroller of Texas operates one of the best online portals to examine state spending in the country. She describes citizens as partners in their own government: "We're giving Texans easy access to information useful in deciding whether tax dollars are being spent in a responsible manner."

A fully transparent government will include a complete searchable database of every single expenditure and every state contract. It is a significant undertaking, but, like Alaska, we can start with something less than an ideal system.

Individual departments can behave like an individual town. A state agency can easily start by placing online a spreadsheet of each check, along with monthly totals of expenses compared to the budget.

The first steps will require no new computer equipment, no new software, and do not require an agency to do anything it isn't already doing. It merely requires the agency to show us.

Transparent, accountable government is spreading across the country. New Hampshire has always been proud of an open government close to the people. There's no reason that the state of Alaska should be more open than the town of Windsor or the state of New Hampshire. Like Alaska, we should do something to get started.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Concord.

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