Opening the Window on State Spending
By Clint Shields
Texas’ budget for the 2008-09 biennium topped out at more than $151 billion. And now forward thinking and modern technology brings Texans, along with anyone else with Internet access, a chance to follow the dollars as they are spent for state business.
In January 2007, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs began detailing expenditures for various state agencies on the Comptroller’s Web site at www.window.state.tx.us. In June 2007, that online endeavor was further developed into Where the Money Goes, a multi-faceted Web presence that provides a window into broad spending categories for all state agencies and institutions, as reported to the Comptroller’s office.
That openness — or transparency — helps take some of the mystery out of government spending and is part of the Comptroller’s commitment to Texans, Combs said.
“Texans deserve transparency in how their money is spent,” she said.
Texas is not alone on the road to transparency, with as many as 15 states working on some type of online expenditures disclosure, according to Americans for Tax Reform. Various state efforts are outlined on the organization’s Web site at www.atr.org.
The Next Step
Combs’ efforts to detail expenditures were already under way when legislation from the 80th Texas Legislature — House Bill 3430 by Rep. Mark Strama — called for a searchable database detailing all state agency expenditures to be online by October 2007.
That previous work will help with making that information available to Texans, Combs said.
“[The new database] will help consolidate information and enhance our commitment to demystify government finances,” she said.
The database will allow a user to see expenditure information down to the transaction level, including check registry amounts, dates, payors, payees and contract and grant information as provided. Additionally, each state agency maintaining a Web site will be required to include a link to the state expenditure database, thus broadening its visibility.
Openness can only help strengthen trust between Texas and its citizens, who in today’s world are growing used to having information at their fingertips, Strama said.
“Direct citizen access to information has already created a powerful additional check and balance on government and the media,” Strama said. “With HB 3430, citizens will be able to conduct their own research and hold government accountable in ways that were not possible before.”
Accountability is good news, according to Peggy Venable, state director for the Texas office of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which noted HB 3430 as a highlight of the 80th Legislature. AFP, a group that Venable described as a grassroots organization wanting to see citizens in greater control of their government, sees the database as a step in the right direction.
“Certainly we like the idea and think it’s going to be very citizen-friendly,” Venable said. “We think it’s really important to increase that transparency, and accountability is going to be good for taxpayers.”