States leading the Way on Transparency Reforms


Fascinating piece on the Wall Street Journal opinion pages today. (Even more interesting because it's not hidden behind their firewall…). It points out numeous examples of how the states are taking the lead in creating greater transparency for how they spend their money. They report that 19 states have passed, or are now working on, legislative or administrative reforms that would hand the public tools to examine government spending.

Even as Washington has fiddled on earmarks–delaying, obfuscating and basically doing all it can to avoid enacting real reform–a transparency movement has been sweeping the nation. Angry over Alaskan Bridges to Nowhere, and frustrated by the lack of willpower in the nation's capital, small-government activists have turned their attention to the states. If ever Washington lagged behind a movement, this is it….That hope is rooted in the idea that the best way to get Americans actively engaged in the debate over the size and efficiency of government is by giving them examples of government gone wrong. Reformers point to the current furor over Washington earmarks as proof. Tell Americans that the size of the federal government increased to a whopping $3 trillion, and their eyes glaze over. Tell them that the Alaska delegation was trying to appropriate some $300 million of taxpayers' hard-earned dollars to build a bridge for 50 people, and they go berserk. Much as they went berserk decades ago at the news the Pentagon had spent $640 on a toilet seat.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, says: "Transparency is the next big thing."

Mr. Norquist argues that the very existence of transparency laws "gets rid of half the problem," since politicians are on uncomfortable notice that their spending habits are being watched. If a politician knows that Joe Public can find out that he helped award a huge grant or government contract to a big campaign donor, he might think twice about pushing the grant in the first place…At the state level, transparency has been an easy political sell. Voters have made clear they are willing to turn spending abuse into a top issue in local elections. And while big-government politicians may not fear arguing against budget caps or spending limitations, few are stupid enough to argue against better information. If anything, state Republicans and Democrats are racing to sponsor transparency bills. The question is if any of this translates back to Washington. National politicians understand the anger, which is why Democrats ran on greater earmark transparency last year, and why we had last year's successful legislation from Sens. Tom Coburn and Barack Obama to set up a public Web site detailing all federal contracts and grants.