This past weekend I was on the East End of Long Island and got into an intense conversation with Charlot Taylor about local budgets. She said there were problems getting information.
This naturally upsets her. She told me she has written a letter to President-elect Barack Obama about the lack of transparency of some local governments. She asked: "Shouldn't governments at all levels post their budgets and financial statements on the Internet?"
Yes, I think they should, and many of them do.
I checked out the story with the East Hampton local school board. It gets credit for using green principles to expand its high school square footage by 60 percent. But the cost figures range from $58 million to $79 million. A local newspaper reported that the superintendent declined to say how much it would be or how it would be spent. The same district two years ago reportedlyfailed to comply with a freedom of information law request about its budget. When I went to the East Hampton Union Free School District website and the only button promising data -- marked eSchoolData -- requires a password. A password?
Most states (41 out of 51 counting D.C.) are facing budget gaps and so are localities. Many are desperate for money because of declines in tax revenues, increased needs and losses in pension funds. Taxpayers are entitled to know what's happening. It's a civil right. The President-elect and the Congress are talking with governors about hundreds of billions of dollars in handouts as part of a stimulus-recovery package.
In return for this money, shouldn't the President and Congress require that all state and local recipients abide by a bill of rights for taxpayers? It might include (1) transparency in reporting via internet access to budgets and financial statements, (2) open access to the data with no passwords required, (3) an effort to ensure comparability of data over time and with other jurisdictions, and (4) timely posting.
The President-elect is a transparency fan -- one of the four lead co-sponsors (along with Sen. John McCain) of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006. This Act requires full disclosure to the public of all entities or organizations receiving federal funds beginning in FY 2007. This is accomplished via the website USAspending.gov, which is managed by OMB Watch.
Charlot is right. In return for federal grants, states and localities should post full financial data online, with no password required. If you agree, post a comment below or write to Charlot at email@example.com.