Why Hawaii needs a new transparency website ASAP

By Jamie Story

It’s really very simple. It is our tax money and we want to see how it is being spent. Since its founding eight years ago, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii has led the fight for government transparency and accountability by educating the voters, citizens, and taxpayers of Hawaii. In particular, we support efforts to shed greater light on awards made by the State of Hawaii.

Over the past year, we’ve been pursuing a major initiative to this end. Like other states, Hawaii has seen the need and advantage of having a transparency Web site. In 2007 the Legislature passed Act 272—which became law without the Governor’s signature—calling on the Department of Budget and Finance to create a publicly searchable Web site showing all state contracts above $25,000. The site was, by law, supposed to be operational by January 1st, 2009. Yet today, no site is available nor, according to officials, is one planned. This session, legislators filed SB 659 in an attempt to address the Governor’s and others’ concerns about the implementation of Act 272.

The Grassroot Institute believes that taxpayers should have the ability to see how their own money is being spent. This will accomplish a number of different results:

• Taxpayers who utilize the site can act as volunteer “auditors”, performing closer reviews than the government has the resources to perform. Citizens may come up with some innovative ways to save money.

• It opens up a dialogue for taxpayers to raise flags regarding questionable awards, and for government officials to either explain why they are justified, or save taxpayer dollars by putting a stop to wasteful spending.

• Empowering taxpayers as stakeholders may lead them to become more involved in voting and the political process.

The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 (sponsored by Senators Ted Coburn and now-President Barack Obama created  USASpending.org, a searchable Web site, accessible by the public for free, that includes information for each Federal award. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementation of USASpending.gov would cost about $4 million initially in 2007 and about $15 million more over the 2007-2011 period. Actual costs were much lower, at $1 million. The database details $1.2 trillion in FY 2008, and about $19 trillion overall since FY 2000.

While the state government allocated $250,000 to build the Hawaii site, the monies were not released. However, the experiences of the federal government and other states suggest that creating a site for Hawaii would cost much less and be fairly easy to accomplish. The examples of state and local governments opening their checkbooks to the citizens who pay the bills are many and varied. For example the Missouri Accountability Portal is a searchable database that is updated in real time and available online 24 hours a day! Eight years of searchable data is archived by agency, category, contract, or vendor. Salaries of state employees are all posted. Tax credits issued by the Department of Economic Development can also be viewed. The site was established by Executive Order under Governor Matt Blunt in July 2007. According to the Center for Fiscal Accountability, Missouri’s site was constructed at no cost to taxpayers by reallocating existing resources and staff time. In July 2007, when searchable expenditures became available, the Missouri transparency site registered one million hits in less than 2 months. By August 2008, the site had 10 million hits—nearly twice the state’s population!

Over in Oklahoma they operate Open Books. Agency expenditures, payroll, funding, and tax credit information are all available on the site. In Oklahoma, the fiscal note (something else Hawaii doesn’t have) for the legislation creating Open Books estimated the site would cost $300,000-$400,000 for construction and $260,000 for maintenance and upgrades. However, the costs ended up being much less than projected as software was purchased for only $8,000 and the Web site was built by reallocating staff time at no extra cost.

Another fine example is the South Carolina transparency site, which is also operated at no cost to the public. Annual summary spending, monthly detailed spending, procurement information, and state employee salaries are all accessible. Monthly reports include travel, contractual services, and supplies. Additionally, the Texas Web site was also created with no additional cost to taxpayers. (The state comptroller, Susan Combs, was able to create the database utilizing existing personnel.) Here’s a LINK to a PDF with the basic steps of how they accomplished it, as well as contact information if you’d like to learn more. Perhaps most importantly, the Center for Fiscal Accountability in Washington, D.C. has found that ‘OMB Watch’ of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) offers its software used in transparency sites for free. So cost is not a real factor.

The Grassroot Institute believes it is past time for the state to allow those who pay the bills to see the checkbook. We call on all state and local government agencies to voluntarily make this information available to the public—now!

Jamie Story is a former president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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