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Keep Oregons public records in sunlight

My View • Diligent citizens must push state government to be open, transparent
by: Tribune File Photo Attorney General John Kroger hopes to pass pending Senate Bill 41 and House Bill 3319 in order to streamline public records requests and procedures.

Every year since 2005, a week in mid-March has been celebrated as 'Sunshine Week' to educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. Our government belongs to the citizens of this state. Citizens have the right to know how their government is operating with their tax dollars.

This past Sunshine Week, I can say that Oregon does some things well, but there are areas that still need work when it comes to transparency of government operations.

First, the bad news: Accessing public records in Oregon is not always easy. Last summer, I wanted information on seven of the programs through which Oregon gives millions of dollars in tax breaks to businesses for economic development. I simply wanted to know who received how much in tax incentives, what they said they would do in return, and what they actually did - basically, what return on investment did taxpayers get for our tax dollars? My experience with these requests was concerning.

I didn't receive the full information we requested on any of the programs. Furthermore, I experienced barriers of lengthy delays, excessive fees and exemptions to public disclosure. One agency took more than a month to even acknowledge my request, another took 11 weeks to provide some of the information I requested.

One agency wanted $300 to provide the requested information. Two programs, accounting for tens of millions of dollars a year in spending through the tax code, refused to provide any information.

State grades improve

My experience indicates that it is difficult to nearly impossible for even the most highly motivated citizens to obtain basic information about economic development tax programs in Oregon. Moreover, it suggests that existing public records law is insufficient to allow reasonable access to critical information about how Oregon's tax dollars are spent.

Attorney General Kroger has legislation pending before the state Legislature to address the same issues we experienced. The measures (Senate Bill 41 and House Bill 3319) establish clear timelines for responding to public records requests, standardize (and lower) fees, and reduce the number of exemptions to public disclosure.

But there is some good news. According to a report released March 16 by OSPIRG, Oregon is a leader nationally in providing state budget information online, even if there is still room for improvement. The report, 'Following the Money 2011: How theStates Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,' grades the 50 states on their transparency practices. Oregon's budget transparency website (oregon.gov/transparency) received a 'B-minus' this year, a dramatic improvement from last year's grade of 'D.'

Since last year, there has been continued progress across the nation for transparency. Citizens in 40 states now having access to checkbook-level data on government expenditures. Citizens in most states, including Oregon, can access spending information through a searchable database. These states have come to define a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.

Internet search technology has revolutionized the accessibility and transparency of information. Americans take for granted our ability to track deliveries online, to check cell phone minutes and compare real estate on the Web, even to summon - at the click of a mouse - satellite and street-level views of any address.

But until recently, when it came to tracking government expenditures online, we were left in the dark. Citizens could at best point to listings of how much gets allocated to entire programs in the budget. That's not the same as allowing residents to see each transaction. Checkbook-level transparency is particularly important because many agencies spend most of their funds on outside contractors or give large sums as subsidies that don't even appear in the budget.

Move toward openness

Transparency in government spending not only checks corruption, but it provides for significant cost savings, bolsters public confidence in government, and promotes fiscal responsibility.

Online transparency saves millions of tax dollars by reducing the number of expensive information requests and the postage, paper, and staff time that it takes to respond to them. The biggest cost savings from transparency are likely the ones we'll never hear about - because of avoided waste or abuse now that contractors and government officials know the public is looking over their shoulder.

The more that public bodies post data online, the fewer barriers there will be to accessing records. If the data we sought last summer had been online, we would have not been asked to pay hundreds of dollars, and we would not have had to wait for months for information. This would be a win-win for taxpayers and government agencies, but will require leadership to make it happen.

Given Oregon's track record of success in some areas of transparency, I am hopeful we will continue moving toward greater openness of our government.

Jon Bartholomew of Northeast Portland is the policy advocate for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group.