News: CJ Exclusives

Brock: Fiscal Transparency Site Should Be No Burden

Senator says taxpayers need to know how their money is spent

Concerns about the costs of a fiscal transparency measure in the Senate budget raised by local governments and some McCrory administration officials are misplaced, says Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, who introduced the plan.

Brock’s amendment A18 requires the state budget office and the controller to work with the state chief information officer to make funding of a state budget transparency website a priority. The amendment passed the Senate by a vote of 47-2 and is before the conference committee of House and Senate members negotiating a two-year General Fund budget.

The goal, beginning with the 2015-16 budget year, is for every state agency to provide its budget data, and for counties, cities, and local education agencies to post local budget and spending data on their websites while providing that information to the Local Government Commission.

“We’ve been talking about letting the people see the government’s ledgers since Gov. [Jim] Holshouser’s inaugural speech” in 1973, Brock told Carolina Journal. “It’s the people’s money we’re talking about, and it’s long past time we make this happen.”

Brock’s plan also has the backing of House leaders. “I believe Sen. Brock’s amendment encompasses the kind of transparency in government that we all embrace,” said Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, speaking on behalf of House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland.

“There is always a need for sunshine on governmental spending and operations, and I believe this a great first step,” Saine said. He added the measure both would enhance transparency and make it easier for policymakers to analyze the data.

Saine wants the new portal to work alongside the existing Government Data Analytics Center program housed within the state Office of Information Technology Services.

Even so, state CIO Chris Estes says there are “some concerns” about placing funding for the transparency website above other IT projects. “We are trying to address many needs with that money, including modernizing architecture standards and enhancing security, as protecting the security of citizen data is always a priority,” Estes said. He also noted that local governments may publish data in computer languages that cannot be translated on the state’s websites.

“We strongly support using information technology to increase transparency,” Estes said. “We are doing that — and improving citizen interaction — with the Digital Commons project.”

That project is intended to make state agency websites easier to read on mobile devices, and so they are “more intuitive and easy-to-use” on all platforms, Estes said.

State Controller Linda Combs “believes transparency is a key component to good government,” said spokeswoman Sherri Johnson. “Dr. Combs looks forward to working with the state CIO, [the budget office], and the legislature on issues and projects that improve access to the state’s financial information.”

State Budget Director Lee Roberts said his office is “very supportive of the intent” of Brock’s amendment, and “fully committed to greater transparency.”

He said the budget office and controller’s office already have undertaken initiatives to post as much government information on their websites as possible. They included a full revamp of the state budget website.

However, he cautioned, IT personnel will need to work with Brock “to make sure that what he’s suggesting is doable, and something that we can actually do at a reasonable cost on that time frame outline.”

Roberts said he doesn’t have a cost estimate. “That’s one of the key aspects of the amendment that we need to try to understand.”

Data collection would be an issue for the local school districts, cities and counties, he said.

“Unfortunately, even within state government we have a lot of different systems that don’t talk to each other as well as they should, and it’s a struggle to present data in a consistent and comprehensive way,” Roberts said.

Gov. Pat McCrory proposed consolidating all IT functions in a new Department of Information Technology “in part to address these concerns,” Roberts said. The budget did not include funding for a database that could share data among all agencies and governing units, he added.

While spending money on information technology is “not a necessarily politically appealing thing,” Roberts said, “we find everywhere we look the legacy of decades of underinvestment in infrastructure including our IT infrastructure, and that’s something we need to address if we’re going to be prudent and effective stewards.”

Kevin Leonard, executive director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, said Brock’s intentions “appear to be well meaning, but the net effect is it creates more government regulation.”

By law, counties must make their budgetary information available to the public, and that process is already in place, he said.

“With Internet access, anyone can access this information simply by visiting the county’s website,” Leonard said.

North Carolina League of Municipalities spokesman Scott Mooneyham said the League believes citizens should have easy access to information about how government is spending their money. He said the City of Raleigh’s website “is a great example” that could serve as a model.

“At the same time, it is important to recognize that the overwhelming majority of the roughly 550 municipalities in North Carolina have fewer than 1,000 residents, and many have five employees or less,” Mooneyham said. It is unclear how Brock’s provision would affect them.

“We would hope that it would not create a new burden, and unfunded mandate on those local taxpayers,” Mooneyham said.

Ed Dunlap, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, supports public access to government spending. He said school districts already provide financial information through a mandatory uniform budget document with a standard chart of accounts.

Dunlap is concerned about the mechanics of the proposed portal.

“If it’s designed such that it could just be a data dump into the portal, that’s one thing. But if it’s keying every invoice or whatever in that’s going to be a time issue,” especially for smaller units of government with few employees, Dunlap said.

Brock said the plan should not impose any significant burdens on agencies or government units, even small ones. He noted that while the amendment requires entities to provide fiscal updates monthly, smaller municipalities that now issue updates quarterly simply can file a notice stating “no update” in the months between their quarterly reporting periods.

Brock added he finds these objections similar to those he’s heard for years about making government finances more visible to taxpayers.

“I don’t know how this is problematic,” he said. “It’s as if [agencies] are afraid to tell the people how much of their money they are spending. I think they are trying to overcomplicate a simple procedure.”

Dan Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.