There are some really good things on the table as the budget conferees discuss, debate, compromise, and finalize the North Carolina’s government spending for the next two years. Allocating more $22 billion each year in General Fund revenue is a big deal. Adding money from the federal government and other sources, state spending each year becomes a $50 billion big deal.
Some things under consideration are very positive — restricting spending growth to 2.5 percent; raising starting teacher pay to $35,000 and adding nearly 6,800 new teachers over the next two years to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio; ending the transfer of highway funds to the General Fund for nonhighway uses; doubling the amount of money set aside in reserve accounts; getting serious about Medicaid reform; rolling back special treatment for special interests; and making smart energy plans. But one provision stands out as not only good but transformational.
Found in Section 7.17 of House Bill 97, aka the budget, you will find the Governmental Budgetary Transparency/Expenditures Online provision. This sets up a website on which all state agencies, counties, cities, and local education authorities will post their budgets and spending in a user-friendly, easy-to-search manner. Data will be provided in formats that easily can be downloaded and analyzed by citizens and decisionmakers. It will include budgeted amounts and actual spending by each state agency or local entity, as well as information on receipts and expenditures from and to all sources, including vendor payments, updated monthly. Yes, real open government and transparency would be just a click or two away.
The provision instructs the state controller, the Office of State Budget and Management, and the state chief information officer to prioritize information technology funding to establish and coordinate the transparency websites. The House has set aside $6 million in recurring and nonrecurring funds over the next two years, while the Senate has allocated $16 million. At some point between the two proposals, appropriate funding can be found.
The sites will be fully functional by April 1, 2016. Monthly updates are required, but smaller government entities that don’t compile their budgets monthly can file a notice stating “no update at this time” for the months between their quarterly filings.
Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, introduced the transparency provision as an amendment to the Senate budget. The provision passed the Senate 47-2, while Speaker Tim Moore, Majority Leader Mike Hager, Reps. Jason Saine, Rick Glazier, and Chuck McGrady are just a few of the House members who have voiced support. State Controller Linda Combs “believes transparency is a key component to good government.” Lee Roberts, the state budget director, is “fully committed to greater transparency.” State CIO Chris Estes has said, “We strongly support using information technology to increase transparency.”
Budgets are a list of priorities. Are teachers a higher priority than film companies? What ranks higher — safe roads or solar companies? Is performance pay for teachers and other public employees a better investment with greater benefits than across-the-board pay hikes? The General Assembly and the governor will be finalizing North Carolina’s priorities over the next few weeks through the state budget. What could be a higher priority than full disclosure of where that $50 billion is spent?
What was a pipe dream for Gov. Jim Holshouser in his 1973 inaugural address — when he talked of opening government ledgers to everyone — is an idea whose time has come. The complexity and expense of government makes it necessary, the technology makes it possible, and now the commitment of today’s leaders to open and transparent state government can make it a reality.
Becki Gray is vice president for outreach at the John Locke Foundation.