If it seems like a lot more state governments are passing transparency laws lately, you’re not imagining it.

Organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, Pew, and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have issued reports promoting transparency in state government.

The Sunlight Foundation released the annual update to its Open Legislative Data Report Card this week, which grades states on access to legislative data, while U.S. PIRG will release later this month the annual update to its Following the Money report, which focuses on providing better access to state government spending data.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 35 states have passed legislation requiring a centralized, searchable website that provides information to the public about state expenditures or state contracts. “Ninety percent of respondents to a 2008 poll by Harris Interactive believed they were entitled to know how the government generates and spends its money,” wrote Pam Greenberg in “The Transparency Effect,” a 2011 article for the organization’s magazine, State Legislature. “But few Americans believe government is meeting those expectations, another survey conducted that same year found.”

The impetus behind a number of state spending transparency efforts is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes model legislation that states are free to modify and adopt. The organization wrote such legislation in 2007 for the “Taxpayer Transparency Act” and a number of states have put forth and passed bills using it.

While the organization’s efforts help states with minimal amounts of legislative support staff, it has also come under criticism for supporting corporate interests by excluding what some believe is a critical set of disclosures. “This model legislation would direct the state budget office to create and maintain a searchable database with detailed information on all state expenditures – including grants, contracts, appropriation, etc. but excluding costly tax exemptions and credits,” writes ALEC Exposed, an ALEC watchdog site, of the act.

One barrier to transparency efforts is cost. “A few states spent little by using current personnel and resources,” writes Greenberg. “Startup costs in other states have varied from $38,000 in Nebraska and $75,000 in Colorado, to $310,000 in Texas and $456,850 in Pennsylvania. In Louisiana, an initial site was set up with existing resources, but $1 million was appropriated for expansion in 2008, with estimated annual costs of $100,000 thereafter. The Sunshine Review identified annual maintenance costs for two other states: $25,000 in Colorado and $100,000 in Washington.”

ALEC anticipates that argument in its State Budget Reform Toolkit. “States can easily implement transparent budget Web sites at minimal cost,” it declares. “The state of Nebraska placed its expenditures online for $37,000, down from a previous $1.3 million price tag. Oklahoma implemented budget transparency at minimal cost to taxpayers. According to the sponsor of the legislation, the software to build the Web site only cost $8,000. The cost of such Web sites is minimal, and almost always overstated. Inflated cost estimates occur for a few reasons, most commonly, a lack of information and a desire to kill the project as it threatens ‘business-as-usual.’”

Some legislators are also concerned about abuse of the process, and that people are demanding increasing numbers of government records, Greenberg writes, including Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig, who sits on the board of the Sunlight Foundation.

“Gadflys can include prisoners trying to bring the wheels of government to a grinding halt, trolls sitting in their mother’s basement dreaming up conspiracy theories, off-brand online bloviators (moi?) who think shelling the local clerk with gargantuan records requests lends their efforts credibility, and opposition research consultants or attorneys engaged in blind, but comprehensive and time-consuming, fishing expeditions,” writes Tom Layson in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “Listen, none of us want government staffers servicing meaningless records requests on the taxpayer’s dime. The question though is how to stop them without blowing a hole in our rights to obtain public records.”

It’s ironic to see some of the different organizations – which run the breadth of the political spectrum – working together on transparency. The groups may have different motivations, but, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. While in the long run improved transparency is a good thing, it’s also important for people to be able to use the new tools wisely and keeping things in context.


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