One of our most important legislative priorities this year is budget transparency. Where do state agencies spend our money? You think you know because you see a line item that says the Department of Education was appropriated X Billion Dollars? Wrong! All we know are some top line figures. Because the Commonwealth's budget is not in an easily searchable online database, how the agencies and departments well within the bureaucratic structure dole out wads of appropriations for grants and contracts is not easily known.
For example, if the Department of Health is appropriated $1 million to provide grants for research on physical exercise and fitness of older adults, that may well be detectable. But after that, it's anyone's guess as to who gets the grants. Or, if a city got some money for a park, who is doing the landscaping and is it the best bid? Simple examples, but you get the point.
So, who doesn't want online spending transpareny? The entrenched interests who don't want you to know where your money is getting spent. Their argument? It will cost too much money to put online, especially when we're in a budget deficit. Okay, then, who says? The Department of Planning and Budget in one of its infamous Fiscal Impact Statements.
Last year, it said it would cost more than $1 million. This year, between $1.5-$3 million. This might seem plausible except for the fact that no state has created such a search engine for more than $300,000 and the federal government put its $2 trillion of annual spending online for $1 million. Virginia spends a "paltry" $39 billion each year. Most states have done it for free, because OMB Watch, a group that created the software for the feds, has made it available for free to states!
So today, working with the National Taxpayers Union (special thanks to Josh Culling), we secured a statement that will will distribute to the General Assembly. It comes from the Treasurer of Nebraska. He created NebraskaSpending.com by Executive Order in 2007. He proved that putting a searchable budget database online could be done inexpensively without compromising its purpose. For $38,000, NebraskaSpending.com includes information on state government dollars to be spent, state dollars received, investment operation pool, grants, contracts, and a breakdown of property taxes and state aid.
We will have much more to say about this in the coming days. For now, here is the official statement from Nebraska Treasurer Shane Osborn to the Virginia General Assembly:
"We heard the same arguments about the cost of a searchable database. We received an estimate of $1.1 million at one point. In the end, we were able to shine the light on Nebraska's budget at a cost to the taxpayer of $38,000.
"Taxpayers demand absolute transparency from their government. As elected officials, it is our job to deliver it in a cost effective manner. I've seen expensive estimates like these, but in the end government can roll up their sleeves and deliver it for far less. That's exactly what we did in Nebraska."
"I can't envision a situation in which a budget site would even approach that price range. If we can do it for five figures in Nebraska, there's no reason for anything close to seven figures in Virginia."