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Commentary By Lise Bang-Jensen

Spending Web Sites Make Politicos Take Transparency Seriously

Did $165 billion in taxpayer dollars disappear into the ether? Probably not, but eight top financial executives, appearing before a House committee last week, were unable to account for how they spent federal bailout money.

The episode speaks poorly for the banking industry. (Let’s hope banks are more prudent with our personal checking accounts.) It also makes government look terrible—and increases demands that the federal government track every dollar of the $789 billion stimulus plan.

Transparency has emerged as a political buzzword, but it’s not a new concept. Thomas Jefferson observed, “Information is the currency of democracy”. Two centuries later, another president, Barack Obama, has promised “an unprecedented level of openness in government”.

Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives embrace the transparency movement. As a U.S. senator, Obama joined with Republicans Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and John McCain of Arizona in co-sponsoring the Federal Funding and Accountability Act of 2006. It posts federal contracts and grants on a website,

Government transparency is about more than tracking federal contracts or stimulus funds. Citizens have a right to know how every tax dollar is spent. For example, the cost of a Commerce Department trade mission in Paris, or their local school districts expenditures for employee health insurance.

The Internet offers a tool to make such public information easily accessible to the public with the click of the mouse.

Among the states, Missouri, Kansas and Texas sponsor websites allowing citizens to track payrolls and expenditures in detail. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has posted her state government’s checkbook register. In New York, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli introduced promising sites in the last year.

To show how much more state officials can and should be doing across the country, the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy last year launched, one of the most expansive state and local transparency sites sponsored by any private sector organization.

Using, New Yorkers can search the public employee payrolls of New York State, New York City and 19 public authorities--more than 780,000 names in all. They can download more than 1,400 contracts for teachers’ unions and school superintendents. They can search databases of legislative office expenses and pork barrel projects.

More than 3 million pages of data have been viewed on since July 31, 2008. The site won kudos from newspaper editorial writers, “good government” groups and the general public—as well as complaints from government employees who objected to revealing their salaries to the people who pay them.

As has happened elsewhere, our site has whetted New Yorkers appetites for even more information. We get calls and emails from people asking us to add their school district’s payroll, their village’s expenditures or state tax liens—and we’re pooling our resources with private taxpayer groups to do just that.

Although he wrote with a quill pen rather than on a PC, the words of another President, James Madison, ring as true today as they did in 1822: “ popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner

This piece originally appeared in Washington Examiner