Saturday, August 02, 2014

Study notes roadblocks to transparency in government

By DYLAN LYSEN, Herald Staff Writer | 4/28/2014

As a taxpayer-funded entity, the state government owes it to residents to be an open book, state Sen. Caryn Tyson said.

“We’re a citizen Legislature, and I’m all for open government,” Tyson, R-Parker, said.

As a taxpayer-funded entity, the state government owes it to residents to be an open book, state Sen. Caryn Tyson said.

“We’re a citizen Legislature, and I’m all for open government,” Tyson, R-Parker, said.

But Kansas government doesn’t offer enough resources for the state’s residents to keep an eye on its elected officials, according to a study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The study said Kansas is one of the worst states for transparency in government spending — ranking 47th and earning a D-minus rating.

Legislators seem to agree.

A bill aimed at giving residents an opportunity to view hearings online passed the state Senate this session and could become an issue when the Legislature returns Wednesday to Topeka to finish the 2014 session after a three-week recess.

Senate Bill 413 aims to create an online broadcast system that would stream activities in four committee rooms in the Kansas Statehouse. If all goes smoothly for the 2015 and 2016 sessions, the broadcasts systems would expand to four more committee rooms in 2017, and then all committee rooms by 2018, according to the bill. The move would make real-time audio and video broadcasts of certain committee meetings available online in rooms where the equipment is available.

The Senate voted unanimously, 40-0, to pass the bill and send it to the House.

Tyson supported the measure because she always has encouraged transparency in government, she said. The state should help give taxpayers the tools to keep tabs on how their money is being spent, Tyson said.

“I asked for a post-legislative audit on some charges that had been incurred by some agencies and departments from the office of Information Technology Systems,” Tyson said. “The results of that post audit found there was no oversight for that group, and they have almost a $32 million budget and they don’t report to the Legislature or anything. So I do believe there needs to be more transparency and open government.”

State Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, has not yet seen the bill, he said, but said he supports government transparency and adding video broadcasting equipment to committee rooms. Of course, the new technology would come at a cost to the state, he said, and that price tag would need to be addressed once an actual dollar amount for the technology is established.

Although the state might be heading to a more transparent era at the Statehouse, the survey focused on an existing state website — KanView.org — intended to allow users to monitor how taxpayer money is spent. But what seems to be a poor rating might just be Kansas falling behind the technological times.

Phineas Baxandall, who led the study, told Kansas Watchdog the state’s current system would have scored much higher in previous years. The state actually fell 14 spots from last year’s study.

“What Kansas now gets a D-minus for would have done much better years ago with the same transparency functions,” Baxandall said, according to Kansas Watchdog.

The D-minus rating is the lowest a state can earn without receiving an F. The study said a D rating meant state residents had less accessibility to search for specific payments, and residents cannot download and analyze the entire dataset. KanView.org doesn’t have a basic search function that can help find expenditures via key words.

“If you already know what vendor you’re looking for with a contract, or you know the bureaucratic agency giving that contract, you’ll be able to find it,” Baxandall said, according to Kansas Watchdog. “But if you want to know what the state spends on tires, there’s no way to just search that.”

Kansas’ neighbors are doing much better, according to the study, with Colorado reaching 16th and a B rating. Nebraska is at 25th with a B-minus rating, Oklahoma at 26th with a B-minus rating, and Missouri at 33rd with a C-plus rating.

KanView.org was created as part of the Taxpayer Transparency Act passed in 2007. The legislation expires June 30, but the Kansas House passed House Bill 2755 with a 122-0 vote March 24 to repeal the expiration date. The bill was sent to the Senate.

Finch said the state is strong in some areas of transparency, but work remains.

“I think where the state is strong is the state legislative process,” Finch said, mentioning residents can watch the legislative process by sitting in at the Statehouse. “I think it is a transparent process. Where we fall short is the fiscal transparency.”

One of his criticisms of the government’s fiscal spending transparency is searching for specific spending, Finch said. Sometimes it can be difficult to find information on spending, he said, because details might be located not in the General Fund account, but another, lesser-known account. Finch agreed the state needs to do more to make it easier for residents to search the government website for government spending information, he said.

“There is no excuse in this day in age to not have those tools in your web page to find what’s going on,” Finch said. “I think the government has a duty to be transparent.”

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