Real Sunshine For Albany

GOV. Spitzer and his successor as state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, both have made some early moves to turn their rhetoric into reality when it comes to expanding the accountability and transparency of government in New York.

For example, the new governor has forged a deal with legislative leaders to require fuller itemization of $200 million in annual pork-barrel appropriations. And Cuomo has announced his sponsorship of “Project Sunlight,” a searchable public database of political contributors, lobbyists and government contractors.

A good start – but just a start. Achieving real transparency in Albany requires exploiting the full potential of the Internet to open a big, clear picture window on state finances. New York should follow the lead of the federal government and of other states, whose officials are already moving to post their contracts and expenditures online.

A major breakthrough in this area came last year when President Bush signed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. Sponsored by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the law creates a Google-like search engine and database tracking some $1 trillion in federal grants, contracts, earmarks and loans. An interim Web site is already up and running at federalspending.gov.

Since then, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has proposed an even broader transparency rule for his state. To set an example, he put his own office’s quarterly expenditures online, and the Texas state comptroller has posted a detailed list of expenditures for eight state agencies.

The Lone Star State isn’t the only one shining a brighter light on the flow of government dollars. Indiana has already posted an online list of all state contracts, and bills to expand transparency based on the Coburn-Obama principles are pending in more than a dozen other states, as well.

As Gov. Perry put it, “If taxpayers are picking up the bill, they ought to be able to look at the receipt.” Beyond that sensible principle, universal, Web-based transparency can have an added value as a deterrent to would be rip-off artists in and out of government – like the mid-level state bureaucrat accused by Cuomo’s office last week of misdirecting funds to pay for lavish lifestyle that included a fleet of vintage Corvettes.

Web posting of contracts and expenditures would transform New York taxpayers into a mass army of auditors, including hundreds of smaller platoons at the local level. For example, it’s unlikely that Roslyn school officials could have embezzled $11 million over a period of several years if their extravagant expenditures had been regularly exposed to local residents concerned about their property-tax bills.

An effective Accountability and Transparency Act for New York would create a searchable Internet database of all groups getting funds from state agencies and public authorities, including the purpose of each grant and the names of sponsoring legislators. Taxpayers could also download a complete list of government contracts, linked to copies of the contracts themselves, including collective bargaining agreements with unions.

The state comptroller would also be required to develop a system for quarterly online posting of all expenditures on an agency-by-agency basis, including the Legislature and Judiciary. (Exceptions would be made for public assistance to individuals and for sensitive security and law-enforcement spending – but without creating a loophole big enough to obscure new carpets for the prosecutor’s office. )

And these requirements wouldn’t be limited to the state government. In the initial phase, New York City and a few dozen of the other largest municipalities and school districts in the state would be required to start posting contract and spending data as well. Over a few years, the law’s reach would gradually expand to cover all local governments in New York, along with all state and local public authorities.

Just as the Coburn-Obama transparency act enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Washington, a state transparency statute deserves backing by both parties in Albany. Instead of de-funding Cuomo’s Project Sunlight, as they voted to do this week, state Senate Republicans should get in front of New York’s ruling Democrats by pushing mandatory online transparency for every level of government in New York. This would mark a return to first principles for Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who released the first itemized legislative budget soon after he took over the Senate’s top spot back in 1995.

Greater openness on this scale won’t come free, of course. When all is said and done, it would probably require tens of millions a year in computer-programming work. But this would still be just a fraction of what the Legislature spends each year on porkish “member items” alone.

No matter what happens to Spitzer’s first budget, another year of business as usual in New York state government will cost us at least $121 billion.

Real financial transparency in Albany? That would be priceless.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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