General Eckstrom on bogus fiscal impact “study” of transparency

                          


Cost of posting state agencies’ spending online overstated. by Richard Eckstrom, SC Comptroller General
     State government spending has grown tremendously over the last several years, and the public realizes that personal income levels have not grown anywhere near as fast as government spending. For example, spending by state government jumped twelve percent last year, yet the average South Carolina family’s income rose by just four percent. Clearly, government spending is out of touch with the economic realities faced by ordinary citizens.
     Taxpayers deserve to know where that money is going.
The General Assembly is now considering legislation that would require state agencies and local governments to post their check registers and credit card statements online. This proposed legislation, if enacted, would make it easy for citizens to see for themselves exactly where their tax money goes.
     In turn, this could expose wasteful spending and remind state agencies and employees that they ultimately answer to the people they serve. This is exactly the kind of common-sense, good government proposal that no one should oppose. Many may not realize that the comptroller general’s office has already implemented a similar system — at no cost to state agencies — that makes expenditure information for most state agencies available via an easily accessible Web site.
     Agency compliance with any additional online data posting required by the proposed legislation could be implemented in most cases without costing the taxpayers a dime. Yet a recently released “fiscal impact statement” obtained by the General Assembly dramatically overstates the cost of implementing this proposal. Misinformed or biased “number crunching” only confuses lawmakers and gives governments an excuse not to make their spending available to the public.
     According to initial cost estimates for implementing this proposed legislation, the state would need as much as $5 million to fully implement an online check register and credit card database. These estimates, provided by a few assorted state agencies, are simply not credible to me. In fact, I already provide spending information on more than 70 state agencies via a Web site at absolutely no additional cost to taxpayers. The proposed legislation would simply require local governments and the remainder of state government to follow suit.
     I am told that some officials are already using the dramatically inflated cost estimates as political cover. They are arguing that it is a waste of taxpayer money to inform taxpayers how their money is spent.
     Most state agencies are already in compliance with the proposed law, whether or not they realize it. The majority of state agencies already report their finances to my office for me to process their check payments and in turn I summarize and electronically post their spending information on the state Web site. The entire program costs taxpayers nothing.
     State agencies exempted from reporting to my office now maintain their own similar financial databases that they could make available, if they wanted to, via the Internet at virtually no additional cost, simply by using the same type search engine that we are already using.
     Otherwise, school districts and county and municipal governments would be able to comply with the proposed law simply by scanning their check registers and credit card statements onto a computer and posting their scanned files to their agency’s Web site. Keep it simple. Require each governmental entity to decide the easiest and least expensive route to comply with the proposed legislation.
     But rather than taking this common-sense approach, some are lamenting that a vast network of new computers, databases and new employees will be necessary to manage an imaginary new bureaucracy. It is the usual ploy. If the costs to implement can be inflated, they think that maybe they can make go away these efforts at implementing more and better government transparency.
     But let’s be clear — their inflated cost estimates, which are awfully flimsy, are the only thing shielding lawmakers from the justifiable anger of the voters if this proposed legislation fails.
     This typical big-government mind-set, that an entirely new bureaucracy is required to reinvent the wheel, is bogus. The real facts are clear. The majority of government agencies essentially already comply with the proposed bill. Those that don’t comply have a no-cost, or very low-cost, example to follow. Complying is simply a matter of being willing to make it happen.
     The technology exists today. The infrastructure exists today. My office will assist any state agency with the transition to transparency. State lawmakers should welcome the chance to shine the sun on state spending and to invite the public into the vaults of government data. It should not cost them a thing to do so. And if they do not, the public would be justified in asking what it is their elected officials don’t want taxpayers to see.