The Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance reports the average tax paid in Wisconsin during 2007, the latest year data is available, was $2,127. Wouldn’t you like to know where your tax dollars go and how they are spent?
Accessing such information should be simple; however it’s not.
Wisconsin has historically enjoyed a strong reputation for open government. In one important information category, transparency in government spending, Wisconsin fails miserably according to U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. Since Wisconsin is one of 14 states that fails to have a transparency web site, the U.S. PIRG April 2010 report grades Wisconsin an F in providing online access to government spending data.
Unlike Wisconsin, other states have caught transparency web site fever. Thirty-two states currently require an online database with government expenditure data accessible to the public. Wisconsin lags behind other states that, in turn, lag behind private sector technology.
Take Google, for example. Type in the words government health care in the search engine and 218,000,000 results pop up in 0.38 seconds. Want to know where that package you ordered online is and when it will be at your front door? The answers are moments and clicks away. The public sector is fully capable of producing similar information.
Transparency web sites offer critical benefits. Online databases can pinpoint corruption, boost citizen confidence in government, and encourage fiscal responsibility.
U.S. PIRG reports the federal transparency web site cost less that $1 million to launch. Missouri’s web site was created by executive order as opposed to legislative action at less than $1 million using already-existing staff and funding. Updated daily, Missouri’s web site offers information about $20 billion in annual spending. California’s site cost $21,000.
Citizen involvement in government increases. Missouri’s web site that earned a “B” from U.S. PIRG had more than 13 million hits in its first 18 months of operation.
Substantial savings can be made. In just two years, Texas’ web site saved $4.8 million, thanks to greater government efficiency.
Design is critical. Transparency web sites must be developed properly for maximum quality and benefit. U.S. PIRG recommends all state government information be on one site, the information be comprehensive, some states only provide a two or three word description for some expenditures, and data should be searchable with a single query and through common-sense categories.
Wisconsin needs to get involved in the Google-government trend, a movement that has tremendous benefits for taxpayers. A one-stop Internet clearinghouse would throw a laser beam on government spending, the increased focus having great potential for significant savings. Creating a system that’s easy to use and understand eliminates taxpayer frustration and reduces the perception of abuse.
It stands to reason that this concept could also be applied to school districts, counties, cities, and other units of local government. Imagine being able to go to one simple website to find out how your government is spending your money. Wisconsinites bear one of the heaviest tax burdens in the country and deserve to know where each dollar is going.
I introduced legislation to create a Wisconsin transparency web site during the 2007-08 legislative session. Senate Bill 543 was referred to the state Senate Ethics Reform and Government Operations Committee chaired by state Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison). Risser refused to schedule Senate Bill 543 for a public hearing and the bill failed to get through the legislative process. During the 2011-12 legislative session that convenes January 2011, I intend to reintroduce legislation that will create a user-friendly searchable website showing state expenditures. The bill will authorize frequent updates, informing the public quickly about tax money spending. A quick and easy Internet clearinghouse would throw a laser beam on government spending, the increased focus having great potential for significant savings.
The concept is doable, affordable, and should be bipartisan in popularity. Consider this: During 2008, legislation to improve federal transparency on the Internet was co-sponsored by then presidential rivals John McCain and Barack Obama.
Who can argue with Thomas Jefferson, quoted from 1802 in the U.S. PIRG report: “We might hope to see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s books, so that every member of Congress and every man of any mind in the Union should be able to comprehend them, to investigate abuses, and consequently to control them.”
State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents Wisconsin’s 28th Senate District.