Click, browse, follow the money

The Baltimore Sun

With a few clicks of a mouse, Marylanders could soon be able to search an online database to find out exactly how much the state is spending to construct the Intercounty Connector in suburban Washington or on Chesapeake Bay restoration projects or even what taxpayers are coughing up for the "King Barn Dairy Mooseum."

The proposed database, which was approved in the House of Delegates and saw no opposition in a key Senate committee yesterday, also would allow anyone with a computer and an Internet connection to find out where the money is coming from, who was awarded the contracts and how much they received from the state for anything else.

The idea, modeled after a new federal government program, is drawing support both from staunch liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club and conservative organizations such as Americans for Tax Reform. Both sides argue that more transparency will lead to better government and less waste.

"This is tremendous, and it helps our taxpayers understand how the money's being spent, which might not be clear to them now," said Del. Warren E. Miller, a Howard County Republican who sponsored the bill in the House. "It will certainly help me understand how $31 billion is being spent."

All the budget information is publicly available now, but it's not easy for the average taxpayer to find. An interested party would have to spend hours poking around in Byzantine budget documents or query dozens of state agencies, a process that could take weeks or months. Lawmakers at both extremes of the political spectrum say that shouldn't be the case.

"Everyone seems to agree that taxpayers have a right to see how their money's being spent," said state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, one of the General Assembly's most conservative lawmakers.

"This is about a basic foundational principle of representative government," said state Sen. Jamie Raskin, one of Annapolis' most liberal lawmakers, who normally tangles with Mooney on issues ranging from the death penalty to using cell phones behind the wheel.

The two sat amicably beside each other in the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee yesterday.

The state-level coalition mirrors the support behind a similar effort for the federal government that went live in December -- www.usaspending.gov -- which passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate after being championed by Barack Obama and Tom Coburn, respectively among the most liberal and conservative members of that chamber. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain also was a co-sponsor.

The federal database offers all kinds of information -- for example, typing "Johns Hopkins" into the search for government aid reveals that the Baltimore university racked up $737,528,494 in grants in the past fiscal year, or 0.1 percent of all federal spending.

It also provides details for each of the 18 transactions in which the Department of Defense bought $34 million worth of spices from Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co., and it shows that Maryland ranks fourth behind Virginia, California and Texas in the total value of federal contracts awarded.

A handful of states have followed suit, including Kansas, Hawaii, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, and a number of others are considering it.

In Maryland, all expenses over $25,000 would show up on the database. It would tell a user aggregate state expenditures given to any entity.

For each individual transaction, it would detail the amount, granting agency, budget program fund source and descriptive purpose. If passed, the Department of Budget and Management would have to create the Web site by Jan. 1.

But whether it can win over the people in the political middle -- those who, generally speaking, run the state government -- remains to be seen.

Though no one is waiting in line to come out in opposition to the bill, some lawmakers expressed concern that such a site would make political attacks easier or set up easy misinterpretations of the state's complicated $31 billion budget.

"Decisions are made here on a daily basis, things are so fluid, that it's hard for anyone to get an accurate portrayal," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "Knowing enough to properly interpret the numbers is quite challenging."

Still, Miller said he would support the bill as long as it wouldn't make the state's spending process more confusing to taxpayers. "It's the public's money and the public has a right to know," he said.

The measure failed last year after anti-tax groups testified on its behalf, without any real backing from supporters on the political left, leading some to conclude it was a plot by conservatives to force deep spending cuts, said Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group.

"There's a lot that Maryland could do that neither side has any problem with" unless they look at who co-sponsored legislation, he said. "It deserves to pass."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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