Opinion: Follow that money

OPINION

By Brad Bumsted | Tribune-Review

HARRISBURG – The reform train is carrying a light load and chugging along at a slow pace in the state House.

Under a new Republican majority, the House met for only one day last week to consider six reform bills on "second consideration" during which two amendments were approved and the others were shot down as not "germane."

The reforms are recycled proposals from the 2009-10 session and deal with improving state contracting, preventing lawmakers from starting or maintaining nonprofit corporations and expanding the Right to Know Law for public postings of no-bid contracts.

Lawmakers crowed that it's the most significant package of reforms in a quarter century.

Please.

All are important changes but none get to the heart of "pay to play" abuses alleged under former Gov. Ed Rendell and demonstrated at the local level in the Luzerne County contract payola scandals.

Government reform is a priority of new Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and the GOP was intent on delivering some trophies early on. The big-ticket items Corbett is seeking -- eliminating WAMs and killing or cutting the $188 million legislative surplus -- will be negotiated.

One of Corbett's priorities is House Bill 15, which wasn't considered last week because the lawmakers are negotiating amendments. This is the searchable state database known as "PennWatch," which passed both chambers last session.

The notion is to post state spending online so taxpayers can look up anyone's salary in state government, see who's getting state contracts, check on lawmakers' travel expenses and scrutinize agency leases.

It might do the most to bring transparency to state government. Pennsylvania long has been one of the most closed states in making public records readily available to the public. The Right to Know Law often obstructs the ability to see basic data about how tax money is spent, fails to entirely cover the Legislature and exempts the judiciary.

So the measure that Corbett wants, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, would, long range, have more effect than the others put together.

It's about thinking and attitude. If the vast majority of state expenditures are available with a click or two of the mouse, there will be less resistance throughout state government to public disclosure.

But databases are only as good as the input. And if it isn't consumer-friendly, it will squander the effort and breed more cynicism.

Christiana uses the Missouri Accountability Project as a model. Search categories are extensive. An important feature -- retrieved data can be loaded onto an Excel spreadsheet.

Typically, government agencies that really don't want you to use the data provide it in a PDF format.

For Missouri, you can search the current year or use a drop-down menu to go to prior years. It's still not as consumer-friendly as it should be. Finding the governor's salary requires five clicks.

Pennsylvania could do a lot worse. But it has to get this right the first time.



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