Opinion: Daily Journal

Good government built on honesty and openness

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

Credited to Louis Brandeis from Harper’s Weekly in 1913, it was true then, and it’s true today. Shedding light on government leaves it transparent, open, accessible, and accountable.

It’s also harder to do bad things when you know someone is watching.

I’ve heard concerns from legislators about where flexible funding for universities has gone. What happened to money designated for smaller class sizes, and was enterprise money from airport facilities going toward supporting those facilities, or to something else?

In every case I’ve answered: I don’t know.

Sure, piles of agency documents are available in dusty corners of state government buildings, record requests are available, and websites hold the buried information. But there’s a void of easily accessible, user-friendly records of how, when and where our state governments spend money.

We have a General Fund budget, which is filled with lines of appropriations to pay $22.9 billion in services, programs, and benefits. When you add the federal money, transportation and other fees, our total state budget exceeds $50 billion. We know what that money goes for, but do we know who it goes to? Do we know where all the block grant money goes? Are funds designated for one thing diverted for something else? Who gets the state contracts, and is the bidding process fair? Do vendors give political contributions to campaigns for elected officials deciding who gets the contract?

It seems as if no one ever thought making this information available is important.

Imagine my delight, when in 2015 a provision in the budget, Session Law 2015-241, set up a “Governmental Budgetary Transparency/Expenditures Online.” It established a state budget transparency website to provide information on budget expenditures for every state agency for each fiscal year starting with 2015-16. Counties, cities, and local education agencies would coordinate with the Local Government Commission to compile and standardize their information on the website.

With monthly updates, it was required that all information be user-friendly, that it include all budgeted amounts and actual expenditures, as well as information on receipts and expenditures to and from all sources. The 2015-16 budget included $814.000 to implement the website, which was to be up and running by April 1, 2016.

Imagine my dismay when, at the beginning of this legislative session, legislators asked me, What happened to the money for this project or that? I learned the government budget transparency website was never implemented.

Imagine my delight to see “Government Budgets Transparency/Accountability/Reporting” in the 2017 Senate budget, Senate Bill 257. The provision requires a detailed report on what happened to the 2015 requirement, an update of the coordination efforts with counties and local education agencies, and an explanation about the fate of the $814,000.

It reiterates the provision from 2015 and requires state officials to do as they were asked — set up a website to provide all budget expenditures for each state agency. The website must be fully functional by Jan. 1, 2018. There’s a non-recurring appropriation of $2 million “to support the full implementation of the government transparency initiative.”

Budget proposals include significant tax cuts, millions of dollars set aside in savings in case we’re hit with a natural disaster or economic downturn, pay increases for teachers, and millions of dollars to ensure all students have an opportunity for a great education. There also are investments in infrastructure and regulations rolled back so businesses continue to create jobs — all good things that continue to keep North Carolina’s economy strong and growing.

Yet I would argue that a small provision found on page 344 of the Senate budget will have the greatest impact on North Carolina moving forward. Honesty, openness, and transparency is the foundation of good government, and without good government, we don’t have much else. Let the sunshine in.

Becki Gray is senior vice president of the John Locke Foundation.