A little sunshine for Nevada?

Web-based transparency in government is coming to the states.

By Steven Miller
  • Friday, July 13, 2007

Despite all the talk about America’s current red-blue polarization, a new consensus between populist left and populist right on the Internet is already starting to transform the country.

Call it the “sunshine movement.”

It first revealed its remarkable impact last year in Washington, D.C., when it tripped up two notoriously powerful and autocratic U.S. Senators, Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Robert Byrd, D-W.V.

Both had covertly attempted to block the Coburn-Obama transparency-in-government legislation by placing secret holds preventing any Senate vote. They did this despite massive public support and 40-plus Senate co-sponsors for the bipartisan legislation that Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and Barack Obama, D-Illinois, had produced.

The bill simply directed that the federal government would finally establish a searchable, user-friendly website where citizens can come and learn specifically how their tax dollars are being spent.

Yet, for America’s two premier Proconsuls of Pork, Byrd and Stevens, even that was too much.

What the senators hadn’t counted on, however, was the Internet. Bloggers of left and right alike recoiled from the phlegmatic nonchalance in evidence in the Senate. Joining in a “porkbusters coalition,” they began canvassing every Senate office.

One by one, each office was politely asked, “Was Senator So-and-So the one who placed the hold on Senate Bill 2590?” Eventually only Byrd and Stevens were left. Caught out, they soon both backed down.

Fittingly, the glaring sunlight unleashed on the activities of the Senate’s two old bulls freed for passage (and a White House signing last January) what is arguably the most important public transparency and accountability legislation in generations.

Coburn-Obama — officially, the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 — will for the first time open up data on federal government grants and contracts to the detailed scrutiny of the citizens who pay for them. It will also empower the press and even members of Congress, who as Obama himself candidly acknowledged, are often themselves at a loss.

“The existing databases that we have for figuring out how federal money is spent,” Obama told his Illinois constituents last September, “are generally incomplete, inaccessible and oftentimes incomprehensible.

“The data already exists, in a lot of federal databases, but what we need to do is consolidate it, and present it in a public, user-friendly, searchable website. You shouldn’t have to be a contract specialist to track federal spending.”

The Illinois senator also offered an important insight: “Greater transparency … will also force agencies to improve data quality, because agencies will know that they will be scrutinized.”

In short, not only Congress but also the sprawling and resistant federal bureaucracy will finally be getting a significantly larger dose of genuine public oversight.

What is now new in the public-accountability mix, noted the Los Angeles Times recently, is the additional power that the blogosphere gives to public-issue activists.

Just as blogosphere activists were able to cooperate to free Coburn-Obama from dog-in-the-manger U.S. Senators, activists almost certainly will, over time, shine similar sunlight on the river of federal dollars that federal politicians use to power their own, personal ambitions.

Pointed out the Times : “The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.”

What is especially encouraging for Nevadans is that the bipartisan Coburn-Obama idea is also fast penetrating state governments — and on a similarly bipartisan basis. This ups the odds that the Silver State, too, will soon be seeing a new era of public accountability from state and local governments.

Democrat governors in both Kansas and Oklahoma earlier this year signed into law legislation mandating the creation of websites detailing state expenditure information. In each case, the legislation had been introduced by Republican lawmakers.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry in January by executive order placed gubernatorial expenditures online. Then, State Comptroller Susan Combs posted her own office’s expenditures and also those of eight other state agencies. In May, both houses of the Texas Legislature passed a major bipartisan spending transparency bill. In June, it was signed by Perry.

“Direct citizen access to information has already created a powerful additional check and balance on government and the media,” observed Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. He was the primary author of the House bill.

So… who in Nevada will champion the People’s Right to Know?

Steven Miller is policy director at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.


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