State view: Access to details would make local government budgets easier to trimLast week I wrote a letter to the lawmakers who sponsored a great idea that was included in the tax omnibus bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton last week. The great idea was requiring cities — and, I hope, all units of government, including school boards, eventually — to post four years of budgets by expenditure type on their websites.
By: Kim Crockett, Duluth News Tribune
Last week I wrote a letter to the lawmakers who sponsored a great idea that was included in the tax omnibus bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton last week. The great idea was requiring cities — and, I hope, all units of government, including school boards, eventually — to post four years of budgets by expenditure type on their websites.
This would make city and other local government spending so much more comprehensible to voters and, frankly, to city council members. I know as a former city council member how dependent councilors can be on staff; you have to push to get behind the numbers. I could have done a better job with this kind of reporting. I can see greater accountability and leaner budgets as clear outcomes.
Here are some of my thoughts on the omnibus tax bill and the expenditure-type reporting that I shared with legislators:
First, the veto of the tax bill was a blow because Minnesota’s business community needs tax relief now. It is odd Gov. Dayton vetoed the tax bill while calling for broader property tax relief. Why couldn’t he sign it in the spirit of making some progress? Maybe because he does not view the private sector as the prime creator of jobs; that’s something the government does with tax dollars and bonding bills. (And, being Dayton, his idea of tax reform must include raising taxes on “the rich.”)
You may have heard that Chief Executive Magazine ranked Minnesota 36 out of the 50 states. We dropped seven places since last year. Texas took number one again and California came in dead last. We are much too close to California in the way executives perceive Minnesota. They give us good marks for work force quality and living environment but low marks for taxation and regulation (and see a negative trend because of our divided government). Our neighbors (nearby competitors for good people and business) all ranked above the median: North Dakota was 15th, South Dakota 19th, Wisconsin 20th, Iowa 22nd and Indiana fifth.
Second, I have to admit I was really excited about the tax expenditure reporting idea. It would tell taxpayers so much more about where their money is going (like to ever-increasing employee salaries, benefits and pensions) and where it is not going (like to roads, parks and sewers).
What if lawmakers went back to their districts and asked the towns they represent to do this on their own as a pilot? Many would say no for the same reason they lobbied against it this session: They do not want people to know where the money is going. But some towns might surprise us and do it. Maybe their councils would insist.
If this was successful in some cities, voters might start asking other local governments why they do not offer the same kind of spending data on their websites.
President Ronald Reagan was often most successful when he went around Congress to the people, asking us to tell Congress what we wanted. Maybe lawmakers can generate some momentum when they are in-district by going around Dayton and around the lobbyists for local governments and taking the idea directly to voters.
One person who received my letter was concerned this was just another unfunded mandate, noting that cities felt they would need new software and training. That’s a legitimate concern. As a big fan of local government and a fiscal conservative, I do not like unfunded mandates. But I suspect any demand for fancy training and new software is just an excuse to avoid this great idea — either because of resistance to change or because staff knows it would be a game-changer.
Expenditure-type reporting would be a powerful tool for trimming budgets all around the state and making government spending more accessible to voters at a time when they are very interested in looking behind the curtain. This is one of those ideas that pays for itself and then some.
It is fitting in the age of web-based information and big government that elected officials and voters get a tool to help them understand where the money is going.
Kim Crockett is chief operating officer, executive vice president and general counsel for the Center of the American Experience, a nonpartisan, tax-exempt, Minneapolis-based public policy and educational institution.