Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Bill will make it easier to keep tabs on local government spending

They say the devil is in the details. When it comes to government spending, the devil is in the receipts.

A bill working its way through the state Legislature would require local governments – counties, municipalities, school and fire districts and so forth – to post records of all their spending online.

Needless to say, lobbyists for local governments are lined up 10 deep to oppose HB 2282, mainly citing the cost to implement it in these trying budgetary times.

But the benefit of forcing governments to show their receipts will far outweigh any costs associated with giving these documents a little fresh air and sunshine.

Perhaps one of the most immediate benefits is it will likely be a deterrent to the most pernicious of government misspending – expense accounts.

There have been numerous local news stories over the past decade detailing all kinds of outrageous spending on trips, meals and baubles by local government officials.

The insidious nature of expense accounts can lead some public officials to a sense of entitlement. Working 80-hour weeks for the public often leads to an official thinking the public owes them a $300 dinner and bottle of wine at a nice restaurant now and again.

But this kind of spending with the public’s money offends the senses. It sparks outrage and further widens the gulf between the public and its government when the two are really one and the same.

But while the public often gets exercised about this kind of spending it’s more voyeurism than real government watchdog accountability. Expense accounts are a pittance when it comes to billion dollar government budgets.

The greatest benefit of this bill will come from the greater accountability of macro spending. When government watchdogs, including news agencies, try to use the state’s public records laws to pry loose spending records from local governments they often run into the stonewalls of reluctance, obfuscation, omission, disorganization, destruction and incompetence.

And if they get the records, it takes hundreds of man-hours to sort through them and connect the spending to programs and policies and to determine whether it resulted from campaign finance contributions or some other corruptible reason.

Needless to say, the complexity of this kind of research too often results in it not being done, giving governments a pass on accountability. Whether the government is honest, efficient and effective shouldn’t rely solely on the government saying it is. Someone needs to hold it accountable.

This bill makes that easier because it requires governments to not only post records of their spending online, but to put them into a searchable database.

We’ll know right away whether our government’s effective, efficient and forthright with its spending. And if it isn’t, we’ll be able to quickly take action because corruption is far more devilish than a public official eating an expensive meal.

The bill has already passed the House but must still pass the Senate. Senators would be wise to pass it else they’ll have to explain to their constituents why they didn’t want them to know how their money was spent. And considering the mood of the electorate these days, that’s probably not an explanation that will win many votes come November.

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