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Push for Greater Budget Openness Unlikely to Survive Budget Special Session

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Special Report: Special Session 2007: Budget Crisis

By Rick Docksai
Capital News Service
Friday, Nov. 9, 2007

ANNAPOLIS - While lawmakers busy themselves with tax and spending bills that involve hundreds of millions of dollars, one little-noticed proposal aims to help citizens better track government spending.

Delegate Warren Miller, R-Howard, and 24 co-sponsors, all Republicans, are sponsoring a bill to create a searchable online database of state government expenditures in an effort to make the state more open about its spending.

"What we do should not be done behind closed doors. It should be available for people to understand," said Delegate Gail Bates, R-Howard, and a co-sponsor.

But the Department of Budget and Management has come out in opposition to the measure, and a House committee chairman gives the bill little chance in the special session, although he called it an "interesting idea."

The bill calls for the creation -- by Oct. 1, 2008 -- of a Web site on which people could search for information on expenditures over $5,000 by any state agency or contractor, including state grants, loans, awards, contracts, subcontracts, purchase orders and other payments or financial assistance.

A search would turn up which agency made the award, to whom, the amount, the date of its receipt, and a description of services provided. The Department of Budget and Management would oversee development and operation of the site.

Fiscal analysts estimated that the site would cost $273,150 in the next fiscal year and an average $303,100 a year thereafter.

But the Department of Budget and Management warns that maintaining such a site would require enormous manpower and work, and it put the cost at $1.2 million for the first year alone.

"Significant efforts would be required from DBM as well as other state agencies to gather and compile this data into a searchable website," the department's legislative director, Rebecca Burner, wrote last week to Appropriations Committee Chairman Norman Conway, D-Wicomico.

Burner later questioned whether the site would even be that useful.

"We're not sure the work required to pull it all together would be worth the utility of the site. This is a case of, 'Is the juice worth the squeeze?' " she said.

Burner said that plenty of information is already public, such as budget documents and fiscal service analyses.

"The information is available. It's just in a whole lot of different places," she said.

But Miller said there is a vast difference between seeing a state budget and seeing agency transactions.

"A budget doesn't reveal to you how the money's actually being spent," he said. "It's difficult to find spending data -- to find out if a grant has been awarded and who it's awarded to."

Conway said Burners objections should not present an insurmountable obstacle to passing the bill.

"We will want to work with the Department of Budget and Management to see how we can address their concerns," he said.

But even supporters doubt that the bill will be passed during the special session.

"This is a good general session bill," said Delegate Murray Levy, D-Charles.

Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas all approved creation of similar Web sites this year, while Kansas' and Missouri's governors mandated them by executive order.

"The Maryland bill is a version of what has already passed in other states," said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, which is advocating for similar initiatives nationwide.

In July, Norquist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader co-signed a letter of support for such measures and sent it to all governors. The letter said while Nader and Norquist disagree "on many other issues, we share the strong belief that taxpayers should be able to easily access clear and concise information on how their tax dollars are being spent."

Norquist said the movement has been "very bipartisan," noting that main sponsors in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas were Democrats, and that both houses of Hawaii's legislature have Democratic majorities.

Even though Levy and other Maryland Democrats have spoken favorably of Miller's bill, it does not currently have any Democratic co-sponsors. But Norquist said he would not be surprised if that changes.

"This is an issue they (Democrats) could easily steal," he said.

Copyright 2007 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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