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It’s time to shine light on wasteful spending at the local level

When Phoenix realized that it faced a projected $245 million budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, new City Manager David Cavazos requested that every department submit proposed budget reductions ranging from 7 to 25 percent. Those proposals were placed on his desk in November and early December. But when the Goldwater Institute asked for them, they disappeared into a black hole.

For more than a month, city bureaucrats and attorneys responded to the institute’s public records requests by insisting that the budget reduction proposals did not exist. Only when the institute threatened legal action did they suddenly materialize – and only after the city had gone public with their proposal to place a new sales tax on food to close the budget shortfall.

One might be tempted to think city bureaucrats did not want anyone to see internal documents that might show where the fat exists in the budget before “revenue enhancement” took center stage in the local policy debate.

Taxpayers must not allow bureaucrats to use a smokescreen to hide wasteful spending while seeking new taxes on taxpayers’ basic necessities. After all, Mayor Phil Gordon promised “bold action” to resolve Phoenix’s budget deficit. Bold action requires more than talk in generalities about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. And it requires more than hiding the city’s structural fiscal problems with new tax revenues.

Genuine fiscal responsibility requires complete and immediate financial transparency. Especially during these difficult times, critical budget information should be shared eagerly with government reform groups so that they can help agencies craft a plan to trim the fat. And with existing technology, there is simply no reason why every public record related to the budget could not be posted in an online searchable database for easy and immediate access by elected officials and members of the public.

That’s why Rep. Steve Montenegro, former Sen. Jonathon Paton, and other lawmakers should be applauded for sponsoring statewide government transparency bills such as House Bill 2282.
That’s also why the Goldwater Institute report, A New Charter for American Cities: 10 Rights to Restrain Government and Protect Freedom, urges adoption of a “Local Liberty Charter,” a local bill of rights that is specifically designed to prevent the abuses of power that typify local government. The charter’s “right to transparency” would mandate that cities establish searchable online databases of all public records, including every financial transaction and every budget reduction proposal.

If adopted, the bureaucratic game of fiscal “hide the ball” would end, setting the stage for honest budget debate and reform.

– Nick Dranias is director of constitutional policy at the Goldwater Institute.
– Ryan Jones is a Goldwater Institute Ronald Reagan Fellow.

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