Googling state government

The Baltimore Sun

When some of the most conservative and liberal members of the General Assembly are co-sponsors of the same bill, there can be little doubt that it's legislation worth a serious look. The proposed Maryland Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2008 doesn't disappoint. It ought to be approved overwhelmingly - much like the federal law on which it is modeled.

The bill's purpose is relatively simple. It calls on the state budget office to create a Web site with detailed information on every state grant, award, loan, contract, subcontract, purchase order and any other transaction over $25,000.

Each entry would note the purpose of the transaction, the agency involved, the amount, the funding source and the recipient. That may sound a little dry, but it's not difficult to foresee the value. It would encourage government to look for cost efficiencies - much like Gov. Martin O'Malley's touted StateStat program. It would also potentially shed sunshine on possible pork-barrel abuses, making it easier, for instance, to see if winning bidders are also major political campaign contributors.

The program would cost about $388,000 to start, but less than that to maintain each year. With the economy looking uncertain, this may not be a big year for new spending, but in a $31.5 billion state budget, this is a bargain. The potential savings could more than offset the cost.

But most important, state government has an obligation to make such public records readily available. Too often, agencies treat these documents as state secrets and devise artificial barriers - a lengthy request process or sizable copying fees - that make it difficult for citizens to view them.

At least five states provide a similar Web-based service. The federal government has the model site, USAspending.gov, made possible by federal legislation with notable co-sponsors, conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Odd bedfellows, perhaps, but no matter the political view, there are no good arguments against government transparency.

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