Follow through with transparency vow

Posted Dec. 01, 2010, at 10:06 p.m.

Mere days after his victory in early November, Gov.-elect Paul LePage vowed to lead the most transparent transition process in Maine history, which in turn he said will “serve as a stepping stone to what I know will be the most transparent administration.” I enthusiastically applaud his commitment to transparency, one of the three most important principles of good governance alongside efficiency and accountability, and urge the incoming administration to make good on this pledge.

Certainly, opening the process of raising funds for the transition and inauguration of the new governor for all to see will invite both praise and scrutiny. I hope the move, largely symbolic, doesn’t stop there.

I’ve been lucky to travel all corners of the state, and what I learned from talking to people all around Maine was that regardless of which gubernatorial candidate a voter supported, their vote was in some way driven by a lack of confidence in state government.

Increasing transparency strikes me as one of the most fundamental ways to bolster public confidence in government, check corruption and promote fiscal responsibility. This idea was confirmed for me in early 2010 when a federation of state Public Interest Research Groups known as U.S. PIRG published “Following the Money: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” an in-depth evaluation of each state’s openness on government spending. Maine received a failing grade for its lack of any transparency website whatsoever.

In an age where we can videoconference over the Internet with dozens of sites worldwide simultaneously, track shipments from truck to front door, or call up high resolution satellite images of any address with just a click of the mouse, our state government appears to lag years, if not decades, behind the times.

As proof that it is not only possible and relatively low cost to allow the public to see the inner workings of government, the report details 32 state programs that require the provision of access to an online database with “checkbook level” detail of state finances. Those states with particularly advanced capabilities have already documented significant benefits in cost savings and accountability.

In Texas, the state reported savings of $4.8 million in efficiencies just two years after launching its transparency site, and it projects at least another $3.8 million in anticipated future savings. The Texas site cost just $310,000 to implement. Similar stories flow from Utah, South Carolina, Kansas and South Dakota, which discov-ered $19 million per year of redundancies in its economic development spending when it opened its books to the public.

Harder to quantify, yet no less important than financial savings, is the increase in civic engagement and faith in the handling of public affairs that robust transparency efforts can provide. Missouri, a state of fewer than 6 million people, had more than 13 million hits on its transparency site in the first 18 months. Massachusetts’ state purchasing has measurably improved procurement and coordination of government contracts by openly sharing purchasing and contract bidding information online.

Polling in areas that have recently implemented transparency websites, like Houston, strongly supports the increase in citizens’ confidence in government. A national poll by the Association of Government Accountants showed that the vast majority of Americans — 91 percent — believe state officials have a responsibility to provide financial information to the public in a way that is easily understandable to average citizens. A full 75 percent of those polled believe it’s very important that government finances be available to the public.

Examination of transparency legislation across the nation also shows that the move toward greater transparency in state finances is broad-based, nonpartisan and widely supported by the general public. I firmly believe such a move in Maine would be hailed as an important step forward by the new administration, and conversely the failure to take dramatic action to restore the voters’ faith could come back to haunt the administration in the future.

As we face another huge structural budget deficit, this time without federal stimulus money to soften the blow, Maine must move aggressively to reap the benefits of greater transparency. Closing the budget gap is sure to bring with it painful reductions in spending and perhaps even increases in revenue. There could be no more important time to raise our confidence in state government to the level that knowing exactly how our tax dollars are being spent would bring.

Rosa Scarcelli is CEO of Stanford Management, an affordable housing provider in Maine and three other states. As a Democratic candidate for governor, she gained a strong following in the 2010 primary. To see more, go to www.rosaformaine.com.

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