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 V.19 No.38 | September 23 - 29, 2010 

Gessing Again

See-Through Government

The latest word in New Mexico government is “transparency.” Mayor Richard Berry’s administration released its new transparency website, ABQ View (cabq.gov/abq-view), on Aug. 25. Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit that focuses on the issue, says the city site “achieved not just every mark on Sunshine Review’s transparency checklist, but also nailed all our suggested data as well. Data is even downloadable in different formats.”

But that is just the start in terms of improvements that allow New Mexicans to figure out where their tax money goes. The Legislature passed measures for the 2011 building of a sunshine portal. The database will include the names and salaries of exempt employees (but not the names of classified employees) and will allow average citizens to scrutinize the state’s checkbook in an easy-to-navigate, online format.

The sunshine portal comes on top of the state House joining the Senate (and the rest of the country) earlier this year in posting floor votes online. Plus, floor proceedings and interim committee meetings will be webcast.

These are significant steps in enabling New Mexicans to look out for inappropriate or wasteful spending. The exercise of gathering the information and putting it together in a coherent form is also good practice for governments. After all, knowing that something will be on the Internet for all to see should at least cause would-be fraudsters to think twice.

But there is a lot more to be done. Not surprisingly, the government entities that seem reluctant to release information might also be the ones that have the most to worry about. The Rio Grande Foundation has spent more than a year putting together newmexicospending.com. To build the site, we requested public information from school districts statewide on vendor transactions and district payrolls.

This is public information, and we requested it in electronic format for our own purposes (it was easier to upload to the website) and because it should be far cheaper and easier for the districts to gather. Unfortunately, the responses from New Mexico’s largest school districts were mixed, to say the least.  

Roswell, Hobbs, Alamogordo, Carlsbad, Clovis and Farmington were cooperative, and their information has been uploaded to our site. But Santa Fe and Rio Rancho were inconsistent. Sometimes they provided needed information; other times they demanded as much as $1,200 for relevant public information. (Public agencies can charge up to $1 per page for records under the state's Inspection of Public Records Act.)

Worse still were Albuquerque Public Schools and Las Cruces Public Schools, which refused to part with any information at all. Mind you, this is all public information. Tactics included not returning phone calls and corresponding only via snail mail as opposed to telephone or e-mail. Ultimately, we were unable to obtain any information from either district.

The bad news is that it appears we’ll be unable to get information from some of New Mexico’s largest school districts for our site. The good news is that a bipartisan group of legislators is going to be pushing to add all New Mexico school districts to the sunshine portal website, thus making transparency a reality in a way that the Rio Grande Foundation, a small nonprofit, could only dream of providing.

Setting up websites and organizing their content has some startup costs, but these sites likely will pay for themselves in short order. In Texas—which has been a pioneer in government transparency—the Comptroller’s Office used its transparency site to find purchasing inefficiencies, such as obtaining toner from multiple suppliers. The discovery within that office alone has yielded a projected $10 million in savings since the site went up in 2007.

With ever-increasing amounts of information about all aspects of our lives—from Twitter feeds to Facebook pages—available on the Internet for everyone to see, taxpayers are bound to demand greater public disclosure by government agencies. This is a good thing, and we should applaud those who, like Mayor Berry, are leading the way. We should also put pressure on those who refuse to get with the times.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Paul Gessing is the president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation, an organization that promotes limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

 
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