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Following your tax dollars

State Comptroller D. Clark Partridge addresses a news conference at which the Arizona Public Interest Research Group gave Arizona an A-minus for government transparency, mainly because of a database of state expenditures operated by Partridge’s office. Listening are Serena Unrein, left, a public interest advocate for Arizona PIRG, and Byron Schlomach, an economist with the Goldwater Institute. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Devin McIntyre)

While many Arizonans are enjoying spring break and our beautiful weather, it is an appropriate coincidence that this past week was also designated “Sunshine Week,” a nationwide initiative that draws public attention to the need for increased government transparency and accountability.

At a time when much of politics is marred by partisan bickering, transparency is something that people from all parts of the political spectrum can agree upon. And here in Arizona, we can take heart that it is getting easier to follow where our tax dollars go.

According to a report released March 13 by the Arizona PIRG Education Fund, Arizona, along with some other states, is leading this positive trend. The report, “Following the Money 2012: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” grades the 50 states on their transparency practices. Arizona’s OpenBooks transparency website (http://openbooks.az.gov) receives a grade of A-minus.

From Arizona to Kentucky to West Virginia, states are improving their transparency websites to allow citizens to search and view checkbook-level data on government expenditures quickly and easily.

Arizona’s progress in this area has been dramatic. Although for years Arizonans have enjoyed their ability to follow all sorts of information online from tracking deliveries to checking cell phone minutes, when this report was first released in 2010, Arizona received a failing grade. Now Arizonans can easily access state spending information through a searchable database and even see each transaction made by the state.

Having one of the best transparency websites in the nation is important because it shines a bright light on Arizona’s government spending. Arizona taxpayers need to be confident that they can follow where our money is going.

The even better news is that there is more transparency on the horizon for Arizona. By January 2013, local governments (cities, towns, counties, community colleges, universities and school districts) will be required to launch transparency websites, further illuminating where our tax dollars go on local government spending.

When officials developed the OpenBooks state transparency website, they built it in a way that will allow local governments to post their data on the state website. Local governments should take advantage of this feature, as it will allow taxpayers a one-stop location for government spending of all types, while minimizing the cost and time for local governments to create transparency websites.

Let’s urge our elected officials to stay in the lead and have Arizona set the standards for transparency to continue to march forward. Sunshine is one of Arizona’s most valuable assets, regardless of whether it is the kind associated with our beautiful weather or the light that now shines on government finances.

– Serena Unrein is the public interest advocate for the Arizona PIRG Education Fund.

– Byron Schlomach is chief economist at the Goldwater Institute.

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