Major movement for more online transparency of Oregon’s spending

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We welcome Jon Bartholomew as our guest blogger today. I first came across Jon’s work when I featured his blog post about the Oregon transparency website, in our weekly round-up.

Jon is a Policy Advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG). He is also a member of the Transparency Oregon Advisory Commission, a board member of Open Oregon, and works on promoting government transparency in Oregon. In addition, he works on consumer protection and democracy issues for OSPIRG. Prior to working for OSPIRG, Jon worked for Common Cause as Associate Director of Media Reform.

Oregon faces a $3.5 billion budget deficit, therefore it is all the more important we can get a clearer picture as to how the state is actually spending money. By doing so, we put the facts on the table instead of merely rhetoric on all sides of the budget debate. The more we can really show where tax dollars go, the more we can talk about real solutions to tough issues. As my post recently at BlueOregon.com notes, there are several improvements in Oregon’s transparency that will help provide a clearer picture for the public, but there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

One major improvement is the incorporation of the Oregon Data technology onto the state transparency website. This is a reciprocal deal where the budget data from the transparency site is also available at the Oregon Data website. Now, finally, you can search state spending through direct expenditures, contracts and salaries — and make charts, download search results, map results and more. It takes a little while to get used to the interface, but it’s a very powerful tool. The important thing here is that it dramatically improves the usability of the state transparency website. The goal is to make the information about spending more understandable to the average citizen. However, I see a lot of room for improvement in really providing enough context for people to fully understand government spending.  I’d encourage you to try out the new features and provide your feedback on them.

Missing Information

Despite this improvement, there are still many ways Oregon is spending money that you can’t see on the website. For example, the state spends billions of dollars a year through the tax code, and the only information citizens get to understand that spending is a Tax Expenditure Report (TER) which lists the state’s tax breaks and how much each one costs. To be fair, Oregon’s TER is much better than what is provided in many other states, and this year they are making the basic information about the tax expenditures available on a downloadable spreadsheet However, there is more information about tax expenditures that is not available in the TER.

Based on what it says in the newest report, there is likely to be about $600 million in the next biennium in tax breaks for businesses for the purpose of economic development. What you can’t see in the TER or anywhere online is who got these breaks, how much they got, how many jobs they promised to deliver, and what they actually did. If we are to ensure these programs actually create the jobs they said they would, and to ensure these breaks aren’t going to undeserving businesses, we need to be able to see that data.

New legislation to shine more light on tax breaks

Seeing that data is exactly what is behind HB 2825, a bipartisan effort to make economic development tax incentives more transparent to the public. As an editorial in the Eugene Register Guard noted, “Oregonians need a clear picture of what they’re getting from these programs, both because of their big price tag and because it’s essential that the expenditures yield actual results.” This bill had its first hearing on February 17th and has broad bipartisan support. However, you can still weigh in on it with your legislators by using OSPIRG’s action tool.

One exciting advance for transparency is that now you can see data online for one of the largest and most controversial of these tax expenditures that businesses benefit from. You can also view who has received and been pre-certified for Business Energy Tax Credit (BETC) – given to businesses that invest in energy conservation, recycling, renewable energy resources and less-polluting transportation fuels – on the Oregon Department of Energy’s website. This information should be mirrored on the state transparency site, but at least it’s available at ODoE’s site. Some improvements that still need to be made are to include the data in a downloadable spreadsheet (instead of a pdf) and to include pass-through partners (where the company that received the credit then sold the credit to another taxpayer).

Using data to open government

Another set of data that is not available on the state transparency website is the spending by Oregon’s “quasi public” agencies. Quasis are agencies that are not directly accountable to the voters or to legislators but were created by government to perform public services. They have the power to raise revenues, but outside of the normal budget process of state government, and they are run by appointed – not elected – boards. They include such agencies as TriMet, the Port of Portland, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and the Portland Development Commission.  I recently published a report about quasis, noting that while none of them have their budget data at the state transparency website, many of them have very little budget information on their own website, and none of them provide “checkbook-level” spending information. Transparency is certainly not the silver bullet to ensure the state spends money in the most effective ways, but it is a powerful tool for accountability.  Through transparency, active citizens can analyze how we spend, and make suggestions for improvement. The arguments about state spending shift from about rhetoric to about facts. And since sunlight is the best disinfectant, transparency will also prevent the misspending of tax dollars. While there has been a lot of improvement over the last two years, we still need to ensure ALL state spending is transparent, and we need to make it more understandable.

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