Transparency Needed in Pennsylvania Budget Debate

ABC 27 has a news story and video on proposed legislation that would create an online portal and database of state spending in Pennsylvania.

What is most disappointing are comments by Chuck Ardo, Gov. Rendell’s spokesman.  Earlier this month, Ardo stated with regard to this legislation, “It sounds like the right thing to do.”  What happened?  Yesterday, here is Ardo’s response:

The Governor’s Office said that’s nothing new.  “Most of what that bill calls for is already available on the Internet,” said Governor’s Office spokesperson Chuck Ardo. “All government contracts are listed on the Treasurer’s website.”

 Really?  If a legislator, reporter, or taxpayer wanted to weigh in on the current budget debate, and wanted to find out what a specific line item was funding, could they do so?  I challenge Ardo to try it sometime. 

Take something innocuous like “Economic Advanvcement” in the Department of Community and Economic Development. It received $17 million in state funding last year – Governor Rendell has proposed cutting it in half, and the Senate Budget eliminated the line item.  What does it fund?  I find impossible to tell using the Internet – it isn’t listed as a program in the DCED “Investment Tracker”.  Are there contracts for these funds?  Doubtful, and even so, who is willing to browse through the 772 pages (7,722 contracts) of DCED contracts on the Treasurer’s site.

The Treasurer’s contract database site is a worthy effort to promote transparency, but is limited to state contracts, and is not easy to use if you aren’t searching for a specific vendor.  For instance, I was able to discover that the Treasurer’s contracted with Koryak  Consulting to build the site – original contract for $372,000 and additional features added for $84,850 – but only after browsing through 100 contracts.

Contrast that with Kanview – the spending database for Kansas (which cost a mere $100,000) – where users can go through the budget by agency and then program by program (as well as several other categories) to find out where money is going.  It is this kind of spending transparency we need to help inform the current state budget debate.

Fourteen states already have online spending databases or transparency portals, as does the federal government (through bi-partisan legislation sponsored by then-Sen. Obama and Sen. Coburn).  It is time Pennsylvania and the Rendell administration get on board.