Capital Journal, Analysis: Pressure could make state budgeting more open

Analysis: Pressure could make state budgeting more open
By John Hanna
The Associated Press
Published Monday, May 21, 2007

A four-page proposal received relatively little notice when legislators tucked it into the next state budget, but it could change how state government’s spending plans come together in the future.

The measure requires the Department of Administration to set up a Web site that allows Kansans to search through information on revenues, spending, contracts, salaries and other financial information about state government. The goal is to make finding data as easy as using Google and other search engines.

The legislators who pushed the idea most ardently are conservative Republicans who worry that the ongoing growth in spending is out of control. They believe the more Kansans learn about how their tax dollars are spent, the more they will want to ratchet down on individual budget items.

Whether greater transparency fulfills such political goals or not, it is likely to make it easier for more Kansans to find more detailed information about the budget – and to ask pointed questions more often. That is likely to change the dynamics of the annual debate over spending, in which much of the information – and the power to influence events – rests with a small group of lawmakers.

“Most legislators and probably most of the people whom they serve in Kansas probably don’t fully understand how the money is spent,” said Rep. Kasha Kelley, R-Arkansas City, the measure’s primary sponsor. “That’s a tragedy.”

The budget is an annual source of frustration for state officials and constituent groups who don’t think agencies or programs receive enough money, for legislators and groups advocating limited government and even for people who simply want to track what is going on.

Total spending – including what is financed with federal dollars – will be about $12.5 billion during the fiscal year beginning July 1. The spending financed from the general revenues, about $6.1 billion, will grow 8.1 percent.

“I will always defer to the judgment of the public,” said Alan Cobb, director of the Kansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which favors limited government. “I have a firm belief that the public is – to put it mildly – disappointed with the rate of our budget growth and maybe even appalled.”

But there is another concern. Most legislators don’t see much of the budget, beyond summaries that are prepared by their staff when spending bills are debated. The final version of any spending measure is drafted by negotiators – three from each chamber – who typically have broad latitude in settling issues.

There is information about how agencies spend money, and some even is on the Web already. For example, Internet surfers can view government contracts on the site for the Division of Purchases in the Department of Administration.

But there isn’t a central site, and tracking down a particular budget fact – how much an individual program’s appropriations are increasing, for example – can require some looking, or a call to legislative researchers or the governor’s budget staff. That is true even for people who have better-than-normal access, such as veteran reporters.

“This just eliminates a couple of steps,” said Gavin Young, a spokesman for the Department of Administration. “Right now, all of this information is available through the Open Records Act.”

The transparency measure sets up a 15-member committee to make decisions about what information should be provided on the new Web site, and the whole enterprise depends upon the Department of Administration upgrading its computer accounting systems – at a cost of between $35 million and $40 million.

There is, of course, the question of how many Kansans would use such a Web site. Cobb and Kelley believe people are eager for information and frustrated that they can’t find it, but Young wonders how broad the site’s appeal will be.

“If you have an interest in specific spending, this will make your searching easier,” Young said. “I’m not sure it’s the kind of thing that your standard Web browser is going to say, ‘I’m going to take a look at it today.’ ”

Of course, the state won’t know how popular the Web site proves until it is up. Much will depend on how much the state promotes it and upon word of mouth.

“Government is supposed to be an open entity,” Kelley said. “If we’re doing things for people in the right way, we should not be afraid to allow them to see our operations.”