Oped: Transparency is easy - just post it
On Jan. 1, 2009, Pennsylvania’s "new" open records law took effect. It was designed to give the people easier access to government information. One easy way of increasing transparency without residents filing Right to Know requests and government having to administer them is posting information on public websites. When done correctly, posting information online allows citizens to find the information they are looking for and leads to fewer Right to Know requests.
For instance, I started a Government Transparency link on my website, RepGrove.com, which contains my office expenses, and links to PennWATCH, Office of the Budget, Independent Fiscal Office, Office of Open Records, State Treasurer’s Office and State Auditor General’s Office. Combined, these websites offer residents an overview of state finances. Each office adds a different view. For instance, the Office of the Budget and the Treasurer’s office both have “Status of Appropriations” which show an overview of state spending. The Budget Office version is monthly and easier to understand.
The treasurer’s office version is more comprehensive, but you need a key code to understand it. The good news is our newly-elected Treasurer Joe Torsella is committed to improving the financial transparency of the Treasurer’s office through an online checkbook. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s website is great to search audits to see how taxpayer funded dollars are being spent.
As far as our state budget, even I, as a legislator, still feel as though I do not have enough information to base decisions on. On Jan. 19, I submitted to each executive agency a four-page list of budget questions, which is also on my website. We, as legislators, never seem to have enough time during budget hearings to ask in-depth financial questions, so I submitted supplemental questions.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Treasurer Joe Torsella have already answered these numerous questions effectively. I gave executive agencies three months to properly address these commonsense questions and they are due by April 19. As I receive these answers, I will be posting them to my website and share them with my colleagues.
While these supplemental questions are a start, we need to embed more financial transparency into the budget process. This is why Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) and I have developed House Bill 201, the SMART Act, which requires robust financial information to be transmitted to the General Assembly, the Independent Fiscal Office, and, more importantly, the residents of Pennsylvania. As part of this legislation, House Bill 201 would also create the Commonwealth Checkbook. The checkbook, taken from a successful policy implemented in Ohio, would allow Pennsylvanians to see how their tax money is spent along with any changes in real-time all online.
We all need to know how and where tax dollars are being spent and what outcomes we are seeing from state programs. It is imperative we all demand a more transparent budget process which is rooted in measurable outcomes. Sadly, legislators who have the Constitutional authority of oversight over its coequal branches of government have had to file Right to Know requests to find out information from the executive branch which should be provided upon request. The SMART Act legislation is currently in the House Appropriations Committee and I am working with Chairman Stan Saylor (R-Red Lion) to move this budget process reform forward.
In closing, I urge all Pennsylvania governments at all levels to place more information on their public websites, in particular, financial information, so taxpayers know where and how their money is being spent. This will save governments money, by allowing them to tell those who file Right to Know requests that the information is already online and will ultimately deter Right to Know requests in the first place.
— Rep Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, represents the 196th District in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.