The Dalai Lama once said that, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.” This is particularly true of governments. When information is withheld, it is very difficult to trust that the government is acting in our best interest.
Our governmental system was unique in its creation in 1776 because it included a need for actions to be transparent whether in voting or in expenditures. Over time at both the federal and state level the need to protect transparency and adapt it to technology has been necessary.
Technology has greatly increased the ability for the public to access data in a timely and efficient method. Today, you can listen to committee or floor debates from the Utah Legislature in real-time from your couch in your pajamas. The legislative website allows anyone to set up custom tracking lists so we can follow a bill all they way through the process. Just 25 years ago that wouldn’t have been possible; the Legislature used white erase boards that kept track of the bills that were scheduled for floor debate. Once a bill was finished, clerks erased its number from the board and re-shuffled all the bill numbers to add new bills to the bottom of the list!
If you wanted a real-time update, the only way to get one was to be at the capitol in-person. The average citizen could at best read about the action a day later in the newspaper.
The ability to efficiently package and share data via computers and the Internet has brought new meaning to the term “truth in taxation.” If you want to parse through a local government budget or the facts on a department’s rule making decision, the data is now available with a few clicks. There are several bills this year to add new facets to the ability for the public to gain data that will allow for more informed decision-making.
For instance, HJR 005 would provide the ability for citizens to monitor the state budget as it evolves during the legislative session. SB 128 provides for additional transparency into how education dollars are spent. It would require individual schools to break down their spending for specific programs, supplies and other expenses and post the data to the state’s transparency website.
Public education funding isn’t the only area receiving increased transparency. HJR 6 recently passed the House and is awaiting consideration by the Senate. The bill deals with legislative compensation. Currently, legislators receive $273 a day (comprised of salary and a lodging and food stipend). In an effort to make salary fairer to the legislators and make our taxpayer-funded expenses more transparent to the taxpayers, this bill modifies a few things, specifically:
• The $273 remains the same but is no longer split into salary, lodging, and meals; rather, the total $273 is now categorized as salary and is taxable in its entirety.
• Any meal and travel expenses incurred can only be reimbursed by an audit trail of receipts subject to public disclosure.
Additionally there are bills to increase transparency: in campaign donations by corporations, in legislation that is introduced by a “boxcar” format, to ensure that local governments and interlocal entities are more transparent in their financial operations, and revisions to the Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) for information requests from state and local governments.
There likely will never be a final destination in terms of governmental transparency, because technology will always create new ways for data to be shared and reviewed, but it is important that we continue to assess the ways government is transparent and make necessary changes when deficiencies are found.
We might not all want to individually review school program budgets or campaign filings, but knowing the information is available allows people to go about their lives with trust and security in government. If you have an idea for an area in need of greater transparency, contact your legislator today!
Brad Wilson represents House District 15 in Davis County. He is writing a series of articles during the annual legislative session chronicling his experiences as a legislator.