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Many states, including Minnesota, lag in putting their spending on the Internet

Some 1,000 miles to Minnesota's south, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs made her state one of the first to use the Internet to show how taxpayers' dollars are spent, by instituting the Open Book Texas website in 2007. As she noted, "Government spending is often seen as impenetrable and unknowable."

That same year, the Minnesota Legislature voted to create a similar entity — yet Gopher State residents remain in the dark. What happened?

Advocates of "transparency" in government spending have reason to be delighted with the level of "sunlight" that has accompanied the New Year. Since Jan. 1, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland and Nevada have all launched or significantly improved their own transparency websites, allowing citizens to see how state government spends and allocates taxpayer dollars. Virginia lawmakers just voted (unanimously) to put spending online, while Utah will unveil its spending database this May. Transparency legislation is pending in Colorado, Montana and Oregon.

Fewer than half of states have such web information
Despite the issue's bipartisan nature, spending transparency still fails to characterize the majority of state governments in the United States, however. More than half the states do not show how tax dollars are spent, and some have even reneged on their commitments to do so. Unfortunately, Minnesota falls into this category.

Legislators passed House File 548 in 2007, but the state failed to launch a spending transparency website by the January 2008 deadline this legislation had established. The site is now well over one year late.

Brian McClung, director of communications and citizen outreach for the office of Gov. Tim Pawlenty, attributes the delay to perceived technological and financial obstacles. 

Currently, Minnesota uses an accounting system that was installed in 1994. Though it contains the needed financial data, questions had been raised about the system's Internet compatibility. In addition, House File 548 did not designate the $1 million or more in funding deemed necessary for the site to be developed and made available. As a result of these two perceived obstacles, no one complied with the law.

Site now set for launch next month
After the required launch date had passed last year, Pawlenty shifted responsibility for developing the site from the Department of Administration to the Department of Management and Budget. According to Curt Yoakum, legislative liaison for this department, the site is now on track to be launched early next month.

According to Yoakum, the site has been developed and integrated with the old accounting system without new appropriations or outside expenses, other than $5,000 paid for external consulting. Such internal costs fall far short of the $1 million or more originally believed necessary. Site designers also successfully bypassed the "antiquated" components of the accounting system. In fact, beyond being Internet compatible, the system will update the transparency site each night as it synchronizes that day's accounting entries.

Showing taxpayers how government spends their money should never be an issue of the "left" or "right." In fact, transparency has been demonstrably bipartisan since 2006 when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., cosponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which created the federal transparency site USASpending.gov.

If Minnesota's site is initiated in the near future, it will demonstrate to other states that spending transparency can be increased even with minimal funding and imperfect technology. It also will enable Minnesotans to get past elected officials' rhetoric and see for themselves how government agencies spend tax dollars. Better late than never.

Doug El Sanadi is state policy analyst for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the research and educational arm of the National Taxpayers Union. He edits the Show Me the Spending state transparency portal and blogs at Government Bytes.

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