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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 6/22/2014

GUEST COLUMN

Let the sunshine into Ohio government

BY GREG R. LAWSON
Lawson Lawson
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Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” In Ohio, the need for the disinfecting sunlight of government transparency and accountability has never been greater.

Amid competing claims about local government funding and state reforms, transparency gives taxpayers the tools they need to understand what their government is doing. Most important, transparency helps them understand what questions to ask government officials. Bills before the General Assembly can take transparency to the next level.

Proposed “Open Ohio” legislation approved by the state House would create a user-friendly, searchable database in the state treasurer’s office. Under the legislation, all checks issued by state agencies to any vendor would be tracked comprehensively.

Companion “DataOhio” legislation before the House seeks to improve the transparency of state and local government. It would require governments to adhere to open-data standards that encourage uniform reporting across jurisdictions. It offers incentives to local governments to meet the technological challenges of such transparency demands.

Other organizations have also worked to elevate government transparency in Ohio. The Buckeye Institute has developed a database that includes the salaries of state employees, selected local government workers, public school teachers, and employees of four-year public universities.

Since the database launched in 2010, it has attracted more than 11.1 million searches on our Web site, buckeyeinstitute.org.

Many other groups in the state now offer similar services, including the state treasurer’s office.

Yet more information can and should be readily accessible to taxpayers. The information Ohioans need to understand how their local governments are performing goes far beyond salary figures.

Taxpayers should have access to data on local government spending, revenue, and debt. Most of that data is available in various formats through public-records requests, but little to none of it is easy to use.

State and local governments produce comprehensive annual reports, but people who lack financial backgrounds will find them hard to read. The information in these reports is not standardized, making it difficult if not impossible to compare spending by different government bodies.

Responses to records requests vary greatly. Even when governments intend to comply, the information they produce is frequently incomplete or hard to follow. People who seek public data from smaller governments, including Ohio townships, commonly get handwritten notes in response instead of spreadsheets or printed pages.

Ohio is behind the curve in offering the kind of robust transparency tools that other states and governments use. Texas’ Office of the Comptroller (texastransparency.org) and the New York City Comptroller’s Office (checkbooknyc.com) have two especially good tools. The quality and ease of use of other sites vary, but they illustrate the strong desire for transparency among taxpayers nationwide.

Ohio needs major reforms to recapture its status as an economic powerhouse. To that end, understanding how local governments operate is essential.

It is time for Ohio to benefit from the sunlight of taxpayer scrutiny, which will disinfect the budgets of state and local governments.

Greg R. Lawson is Statehouse liaison and policy analyst for the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market research organization in Columbus.



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