Using the Internet to Make State Budgets Transparent: State Legislatures Are Beginning to Make Their Jurisdictions' "Finances ... as Clear and Intelligible as a Merchant's Book."

By Fabry, Sandra | The Public Manager, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Using the Internet to Make State Budgets Transparent: State Legislatures Are Beginning to Make Their Jurisdictions' "Finances ... as Clear and Intelligible as a Merchant's Book."


Fabry, Sandra, The Public Manager


A thing that is transparent, in one sense, is characterized by visibility or accessibility of information, especially concerning business practices. Although he may never have used the term, Thomas Jefferson was very fond of the concept of transparency to achieve accountability:

We might hope to see the finances of the union as clear and intelligible as a merchant's book, so that every member of Congress and every man of every mind in the union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them. -Thomas Jefferson

In other words, to achieve accountability, government expenditures should be transparent and accessible. After all, the consent of the governed from which government derives its just powers is much more meaningful if it is informed.

If we want to implement fiscal transparency, as Jefferson implied we should, we need to determine the fiscal information that should be transparent and accessible. In today's environment, we need a new standard of access because much of the fiscal information is available to the public due to sunshine laws at the state and federal levels. However, being subject to, say, the Freedom of Information Act, doesn't necessarily mean easy access.

Today, the Internet facilitates access to all types of information, so lack of means is no longer an excuse for continuing restrictions on access. A movement is now under way at the state level to increase fiscal transparency, for example, making comprehensive information on government expenditures available to the public on a single, searchable Web site that is free of charge. Access is not enough, however, the information needs to be user friendly and feedback oriented.

The Beginnings

Federal legislation was the impetus for this effort at the state level. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 created a free, publicly searchable Web site for all federal contracts and grants, providing access to data on all payments of more than $25,000, except for classified information and federal assistance payments made to individuals. The federal effort, in turn, inspired elected officials at the state level to work to empower taxpayers to become fiscal watchdogs themselves, and they began to emulate (and, in many cases, go beyond) the federal legislation.

This year, five states--Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, and Hawaii--have already passed legislation mandating the creation of such searchable, standalone Web sites for their state government expenditures. Thanks to these bills, taxpayers in those states will be able to go in and track government expenditures at a mouse click. Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas provide more comprehensive data than do Minnesota and Hawaii, but certainly all of these bills are a good starting point.

Governor Matt Blunt of Missouri has taken matters into his own hands, signing an executive order that launched the Missouri accountability portal. Missouri's "map" (accessed at mapyourtaxes.mo.gov) is a free database that allows the user to search government expenditures by broad categories and by specific businesses and individuals. …

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Using the Internet to Make State Budgets Transparent: State Legislatures Are Beginning to Make Their Jurisdictions' "Finances ... as Clear and Intelligible as a Merchant's Book."
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