State government should ‘bare’ all to make the grade

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The Beshear administration is doin’ a whole lot of shakin’ about a new report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

It’s much ado about nuthin’.

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The report — reminiscent of teachers — grades states with “A” through “F” for their level of public access to government business, particularly spending. The report states that Kentucky “Aced it.”

If you believe a state deserves an “A” for conducting budget discussions behind closed doors — complete with armed guards and covered windows — then you believe I’m going to quit tossing tea into harbors and stay home to sip frappuccinos in my hammock.

The report praises the governor’s Web site “Open Door Kentucky,” which makes some information about executive branch spending — but not nearly enough — available online. The report states that it’s an example of a “top-flight” transparency Web site that, among other things, is “saving money” and “restoring public confidence.”

We little taxpayers remain forever grateful for any bone of transparency the mighty and powerful politicians toss our way. But I for one am not satisfied that the governor’s approach toward transparency justifies all this crowing.

Even the report’s co-author, Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy for U.S. PIRG, acknowledged in a phone conversation that, “all the states have lots of room to improve.”

Baxandall told me to think of the grading like that of a teacher using a “bell curve” where “ideally, you would want a handful of ‘A’s’ and a handful of ‘F’s’ with everything else in between — that would be a normal distribution of grades.” But here, there’s only one ‘A’ and 18 ‘F’s’.

Based on grades the governor’s Web site gets from other sources, Baxandall’s grading is really curvaceous.

Both the Sunlight Foundation and Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law gave Beshear’s site poor marks. In fact, Nader’s group listed Kentucky among the seven worst states for disclosing state contracting online.

Maybe Baxandall looked at the wrong end of the curve.

Don’t get me wrong. Having the governor’s Web site is better than nothing.

But the claim that the governor’s summarizing of executive-branch spending represents “extensive efforts” to shine a brighter light on business in Frankfort (Beshear’s response to the report) is shaky.

Taxpayers deserve specifics.

If, as Beshear said, “openness in government has been a top priority of this administration,” then why was the governor MIA on “transparency” legislation that passed the Senate by a 38-0 vote?

“The Transparency Act of 2010,”sponsored by Sen. Damon Thayer, R- Georgetown and Rep. Jim DeCesare, R- Rockfield, would have removed online transparency from a governor’s whims and made it law.

It went nowhere in the House, languishing for months in the State Government Committee. Rep. Mike Cherry, D- Princeton, the committee’s chair, made sure the bill didn’t get heard.

No doubt, a desire not to anger the House Speaker entered into part of Cherry’s decision-making process. I wonder: Does he ever think about not angering the taxpayers who fund state government?

By failing to use his bully pulpit to preach the message of transparency, Beshear missed an opportunity to lead. He doesn’t mention the fine legislative work by Thayer and DeCesare.

“Taxpayers have a right to know what’s happening to their money, and we don’t have anything to hide,” he could have preached about the bill. “Let’s get this done.”

That would work, unless, of course, wasteful spending ripe for “outing” abounds.

Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a bill that holds quasi-government agencies — such as the Kentucky League of Cities and Kentucky Association of Counties — to a higher standard of spending accountability.

The politicians used the agencies’ spending fiascos — complete with strippers and escorts — to purchase favor with voters. Ironically, their motives are quite transparent.

Jim Waters is director of policy and communications for the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

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