The last few months saw immense partisan animosity and demeaning comments during numerous spats under the Capitol Dome. But amid the fiscal fist fights over school choice, a natural gas tax, university subsidy cuts and really, everything concerning the FY 2011-12 state budget, one important bipartisan pact emerged: creating transparency in state spending.
Pennsylvania became the 37th state to pass a law requiring all state spending be posted on a Web site, allowing taxpayers to follow their own money. Representing a reform in the works for years, House Bill 15 passed unanimously in both chambers. Its passage is a credit to the efforts of both Republicans and Democrats, and particularly to those of Rep. Jim Christiana (R-Beaver) and Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne (R-Lehigh).
PennWATCH will be a one-stop online clearinghouse detailing all state revenue and spending. The Web site, which the Governor’s Office of Administration will host, will launch by Dec. 31, 2012. The new Web site will include spending information; contractor data; state tax collections and federal revenue received; and the name, position and salary of every state employee.
The total compensation of every state worker—including bonuses and commissions—will be posted by Jan. 2013. An amendment by Sen. Mike Stack (D-Philadelphia) beefed up the compensation reporting, and is especially significant in light of the 2008 Bonusgate scandal that revealed widespread corruption in the General Assembly. By enabling close scrutiny of state doings, PennWATCH will help to restore badly damaged faith in Pennsylvania government.
By the end of 2014, the Web site will include descriptions of programs for each payment, and if available, whether those payments produced the expected result. The cost of building the Web site has been estimated at $847,000, from the Office of Administration’s budget, but the experience of other states shows that quality transparency Web sites can be implemented quickly and with few resources.
According to Americans for Tax Reform, many states have found that it took less money than expected to implement their transparency databases (not a boast that can be made about most government programs). The $300,000 Oklahoma officials estimated in costs amounted to $8,000 plus staff time. Kansas pegged a price tag of $40 million for its Web site, counting on having to overhaul its accounting and financial systems, but instead slotted the transparency site into an existing project, costing no additional money. Even the federal government’s version, which created USASpending.gov in 2007, cost only 5 percent of what was anticipated.
More importantly, PennWATCH will likely result in savings. Transparency in government spending encourages state agencies to be careful with their spending and discourages abuse. Greater transparency also brings to light inefficiencies or duplicative services. Texas, for example, discovered it could consolidate its ink toner purchases to one contract, saving $73,000, and further saved more than $450,000 by eliminating unnecessary computer contracts. South Carolina’s comptroller general saw the number of freedom of information requests decrease. Indeed, Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records has estimated that right-to-know requests may drop by 30 percent.
Transparency in government spending has proven to be a good government reform, and a rare bi-partisan one. In fact, the federal transparency legislation was supported in the U.S. Senate by both Barack Obama and John McCain, before they squared off in the 2008 presidential race. In Pennsylvania, state legislators united to pass PennWATCH at a time when political rancor crackled in Harrisburg.
Thanks to bi-partisan leadership, Pennsylvanians will soon know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent. In time, transparency will help government officials deliver better government service with fewer dollars. That’s something everyone can be proud of.
# # #
Priya Abraham is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation (www.CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, nonprofit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg.