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Transparency website casts dim light on government spending

Amid all the dark budget news in Arizona, the recently launched state budget transparency website provides taxpayers with a ray of light. This new website — Arizona OpenBooks (http://openbooks.az.gov) — while far from perfect, should bring transparency and greater accountability to future state budgets.

Budget transparency, while not a new idea, can be revolutionary. Oversight of the public purse is a cornerstone of our government. The ability to see how government uses the public purse promotes fiscal responsibility, bolsters public confidence in government and checks corruption.

Arizona OpenBooks is a searchable website detailing the costs, recipients and purposes for state appropriations. It includes state revenue sources and expenses. The website even includes some independent governmental authorities that are created by the state and perform public functions, but keep their budget and debt separate from the state.

With the launch of this new transparency website, Arizonans now can use information-technology tools to enhance transparency for public money. At least 35 states mandate or have dedicated themselves to the creation of similar websites, giving residents access to comprehensive, one-stop, and one-click budget accountability. Public officials across the U.S. know that their spending and fiscal decisions must remain open to public scrutiny.

As legislation and executive orders across the country are lifting the electronic veil on where tax dollars go, a wide variety of benefits have been realized that extend beyond accountability and integrity. Transparency websites can save money by unearthing inefficient operations, reducing costly manual information requests, and increasing the number of contractors bidding on public contracts.

In Texas, the comptroller reported $2.3 million in savings from a more efficient government administration following the launch of its transparency website. At a time when Arizona is still deep in the recession, the state transparency website can provide government and taxpayers with real results in improved efficiency and cost savings.

While the new Arizona OpenBooks website holds much promise for increased government transparency, it still falls short of providing the public with all of the information we deserve.  Searchable web portals to track any government contract or subsidy are becoming standard practice in other states, but Arizona’s contracting information is on another website. Since that website is designed for contractors, it’s not very user-friendly for the average person.

Another problem is the lack of information about purchases made by the state. In Arizona, our computer systems are so antiquated that there’s no way to track individual purchases made by state agencies. So, the transparency website shows how much the state paid for an order, but can’t show what was actually ordered.  Without that information, it is much more difficult to identify possible inefficiency, waste or fraud.

With some additional information and further improvements made to the site, there is also the potential for Arizona’s budget transparency site to ensure that the state is getting a good return on its investments. In other states, transparency portals track how well subsidies and tax incentives deliver results, allowing the state to better target expenditures. By tracking the performance of state subsidies, Minnesota and Illinois have recaptured money from projects that failed to deliver their promised results.

In order to truly provide Arizonans with the level of transparency we need, the Legislature will need to authorize and pay for upgrades to the system. With today’s budget problems, it won’t be easy to find additional dollars for the transparency system, but the transparency website could save the state money in the long-term.

We should celebrate the new Arizona OpenBooks website as a good step forward for transparency. But it is important that its shortfalls be addressed to provide the public with more information about state spending.

— Serena Unrein is the public interest advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. The Arizona PIRG Education Fund conducts research and education on public interest issues.

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