See public payroll spending data on Web

Posted May 05, 2009, at 6:27 p.m.

In an effort to justify the attempt to censor meaningful state spending data, the ability to review Maine’s public payroll spending information has been called “sleazy” and “voyeuristic.” In truth, these distracting arguments are meant to shoo away Maine taxpayers, as if they were adolescents caught peeking through a keyhole or peering through an open curtain.

But that is not the case. We know it, and they know it.

Government transparency at the federal, state and local levels is being implemented across America with a battle cry that the people have the right to know. Maine people were among the first in the nation to have this kind of free access to their public spending data when www.MaineOpenGov.org was launched late last September.

The reality is that these spending data have been available for public review here since the first town meetings a couple of centuries ago. Over the years, many areas replaced the town meetings with other forms of government, but the decisions and information from those meetings always remained, in theory, available to the public. As it became more difficult and time-consuming to keep up with the details of larger government operations, most residents stopped paying close attention to Maine’s spending and taxes.

We are now at the point where the vast majority of local governments, and certainly the state government, have grown far beyond the ability of being managed through any sort of annual public meetings. Voters still have the ultimate control and responsibility — but staying current and well-informed involves more data than the average resident has the time to investigate.

This need for timely, unbiased information to empower Maine voters called for a new solution.

Fortunately, computers and online applications can make these data available to everyone, with levels of detail and reporting capabilities that were unavailable, even to the Legislature, 15 or 20 years ago. The accurate, specific information provided through www.MaineOpenGov.org, enables Maine residents to make up their own minds about where the state doesn’t spend enough money, and where the state spends too much.

With public-sector payroll data, the names of the employees are necessary for a number of important reasons. First of all, public employees work for the public, and their compensation, which is determined and paid by the public, needs to remain public. In addition, there are so many employees within the government with identical job titles, but pay ranges that vary by tens of thousands of dollars, having their names attached to positions helps clarify the listings.

Another reason the names are important is that Maine has more than 100,000 public-sector employees and retirees. Unlike most private-sector jobs, many public employees are able to retire once, or even twice, and still go back to work for the same employer and start all over again. Without names attached to positions and compensation and pension data, these instances of double- and even triple-dipping in the state employment pool would be impossible to identify.

A final reason, quite frankly, that the employee names are important is to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding among state employees and the taxpayers who employ them. Maine taxpayers, like any other employers, need to be reassured that their employees are making decisions to benefit their employers’ interests above and beyond their own, individual perspectives. This point is not to be accusatory, but to recognize that every employer with tens of thousands of employees has polices to control nepotism, cronyism and procurement arrangements. As the employers of Maine’s largest work force, the taxpayers have the right and the duty to oversee this verifying information.

So forget the name calling. The desire to be a well-informed, competent voter is neither “sleazy” nor “voyeuristic.” These tactics are a distracting pepper-spray, meant to stop the hounds looking for efficient government in their tracks. The MaineOpenGov system is a remarkable resource and an innovative platform (developed by a Maine software company) that is being licensed to several other states where residents will have better access to state and local spending data. In fact, by the end of 2009, nine other states with a combined population of more than 52.5 million people will be following Maine’s lead, and have the ability to track their government’s spending: down to the agency, person and penny.

Martin Sheehan is the director of communications at the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

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