OPED: Improving state fiscal transparency

Rep. Seth Grove
R-Dover Township, Pennsylvania House of Representatives

Pennsylvania received a “C” mark in the recently released report, “Following the Money 2018.” The report ranked Pennsylvania 28th in the nation when it comes to providing online access to government spending data.

In fact, the review of Pennsylvania’s fiscal transparency in the report gets worse. Of the 17 states to receive a “C” grade, Pennsylvania is the only one which doesn’t allow users to download all or part of the data placed online at PennWatch.pa.gov. The site also proved to be unfriendly to users and very slow to load information.

Simply put: This is unacceptable. Fortunately, state Treasurer Joe Torsella unveiled the Transparency Portal, which can be found at patreasury.gov/transparency. This is a great tool residents can use to track how their tax dollars are spent. The in-depth site allows users to see an up-to-date General Fund cash balance, expenditures and state investments. In fact, I use the site daily to keep tabs on state finances. It’s akin to checking a bank account balance through a mobile app or website.

I want to build on the success of the portal and make sure it is here to stay.

More:OPED: State financial transparency in decline

With overwhelming bipartisan support, the House approved my legislation, House Bill 1843, to enhance the Transparency Portal website and codify the program so it’s available to taxpayers for decades to come.

Additionally, the legislation would create the Commonwealth Checkbook, a user-friendly online ledger to show the public how and where their tax dollars are spent. The bill would also require state agencies to post budget requests online.

The Commonwealth Checkbook would open the internal accounting system to the public.  If House Bill 1843 is enacted, we would be the first state to give that level of access to its residents.

This online tool would allow residents to view and digest financial information in a user-friendly manner. The cost to enhance the site would be paid for by funds already in state coffers, something I strongly pushed for as part of the bill.

During debate on the bill in the House, opponents of it argued the public may not understand the information they’d be able to obtain through the enhanced portal. I, however, have full faith the people of Pennsylvania would not only appreciate additional insight into state finances, they will fully understand it.

There is also a growing want for more information and transparency into the workings of state government. The number of page views of the PennWatch site has increased greatly over the years. In 2012, it had just 33,000 views. The number of views jumped to more than half a million in 2017.

Fiscal transparency sites are tools used and understood by the public. We must safeguard the Transparency Portal so it’s around for years to come. My bill would make the portal a mainstay on the internet.

Since the portal was created by Torsella, as it now stands, there is nothing to stop his eventual successor from shutting down the site. My bill ensures it would remain a powerful tool long after Torsella leaves office.

Transparency in government is of the utmost importance. As Thomas Jefferson wrote: “An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic. Self-government is not possible unless the citizens are educated sufficiently to enable them to exercise oversight.”