(Denver Post, Apr. 20) Suppose you had a business partner and he wouldn’t let you see the checkbook. You would think he’d gotten a big head, or no longer respected you, or forgotten the promises made to each other. You might even think he was stealing from you. Lots of people are serving time for doing just that. Now suppose that evasive so-and-so was an $18 billion behemoth called the State of Colorado. To make it worse, remember that for you and me as taxpayers, state government with its thousands of bureaucrats and officials isn’t just our partner. It’s our employee, our subordinate, our creature. Of course we can see its checkbook. Only we can’t. Taxpayers in Kansas can monitor their money online, check by check. A Democratic governor last year signed legislation requiring it. Alaskans can ride herd on their tax dollars through a convenient website as well. A Republican governor directed it by executive order two months ago. Same goes for Texas, Minnesota, South Carolina, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Louisiana. But not Colorado, not yet.
Americans aren’t anarchists. As free citizens we cherish our form of government, which we count on to fulfill its constitutional functions energetically. But we insist it be our servant, not our master. Many of us are concerned that government is too big, growing too fast, costs too much, intrudes too much in our lives, and delivers too little value for the dollar. And we often feel powerless to reverse that trend.
One step toward taking back the power is the taxpayer transparency movement that’s now gaining bipartisan support in state after state. President Thomas Jefferson, as suspicious of government as Douglas Bruce, summed up the idea in 1802: “We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every man of every mind should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”
What a simple, powerful reform. Take the state’s checkbook, scrub out confidential personal data, and put it up there in cyberspace for the whole world to see. State Rep. Don Marostica (R-Loveland) tried to get Colorado on board in 2007 with House Bill 1164, “concerning the disclosure of information related to expenditure of state moneys on a searchable website.” Bureaucrats hung a bloated $1.1 million fiscal note on the bill, and Democrats killed it in the first committee.
Inertia and caution were probably more to blame than partisanship. Gov. Kathleen Sibelius (D-KS) okayed the nation’s first transparency law, after all. Alaska State Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), sponsor of a legislative followup to Gov. Sarah Palin’s executive order, enthuses: “Republicans and Democrats alike love this bill; nobody wants government waste.” Our own state treasurer, Democrat Cary Kennedy, now says she wants to realize Marostica’s goal administratively.
“We believe in making the state’s finances as transparent as possible,” Kennedy told me. She conveys sincerity, but what’s missing is urgency. Fifteen months after HB-1164 died, her working group is still working on it. Her transparency budget for the coming year is a meager $47,000. She speaks vaguely of some role for the State Controller, a mid-level Ritter appointee. Her own laudable innovation, the online Taxpayer Accountability Report, and something else called the Taxpayer Profile, have higher priority. Neither equals an open checkbook.
I give the treasurer only a C, and Gov. Bill Ritter gets an F on this issue. His budget director, Todd Saliman, seemed detached about it when I called, merely voicing support for Kennedy’s slow-motion efforts. And his press secretary, Evan Dreier, had never heard of taxpayer transparency.
They should get briefed at the movement’s website, www.atr.org, then give their boss Gov. Sibelius’s phone number: 877-KSWORKS. Because right now, when it comes to transparency, Kansas works and Colorado doesn’t.