Big questions loom as to how lawmakers will address Florida's $6.6-billion state budget hole. But there should be no question of the need for a fully transparent state budget.
Thankfully, under the leadership of Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, the Florida Legislature has taken an important first step toward making the state budget more accessible by creating a new state budget website. The address for Atwater's "Transparency Florida" website is transparencyflorida.gov.
The ability to see how government uses the public purse is fundamental to democracy. That is why the Florida Public Interest Research Group is urging state leaders to fully develop "Transparency Florida" into a comprehensive, one-stop, one-click state budget accountability resource. A detailed state budget website will create more accountability of how state dollars are spent.
The movement toward Transparency 2.0 is broad, bipartisan, and popular. At least seven states have become leaders by launching easy-to-use, searchable websites with a wide range of spending information. Twenty-five additional states, like Florida, have made initial steps toward online spending transparency with sites that leave much room for improvement.
The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, and include detailed information about government contracts, tax subsidies and special grants to businesses. An example of a leading state transparency web tool is Open Door Kentucky, which allows visitors to easily search and view contracts past and present, to search by contractor or type of activity contracted for, with explanations of the purpose of individual contracts. Tax subsidies and economic development grants are included, as are expenditures by some quasi-public agencies. Similarly, the state of Illinois' Corporate Accountability Project tracks grants given to companies for job creation, and provides yearly reports signed by the companies of how many jobs were actually created.
States with top-flight transparency websites are saving money, restoring public confidence in government, and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts — and doing so with little upfront cost. Transparency websites are relatively cheap to create and can save millions of dollars.
In the two years following the launch of its transparency website, the Texas comptroller reported $4.8 million in savings from more efficient government administration. Utah estimates millions in savings from reduced information requests. The largest savings may come from prevention of waste or abuse of public funds due to enhanced public scrutiny — savings that are impossible to quantify but likely significant.
Transparency budget portals also allow states to track how well subsidies and tax incentives deliver results. Funds from underperforming projects and programs can be reinvested in more successful programs. By tracking the performance of state subsidies, Minnesota and Illinois have both been able to recapture money from numerous projects that failed to deliver promised results.
Over time, budget transparency will strengthen our democracy by giving taxpayers the ability to see how our state government spends the public purse. Given the current severity of our state budget problems, Floridians need to be confident that they can follow the money.
Brad Ashwell is an advocate for the nonpartisan government and consumer watchdog group Florida PIRG (floridapirg.org).