Adventures in Transparency

Cockroaches famously scurry for their hideouts when the lights come on. Why do they hide? Light brings trouble — swatting brooms, smashing feet and toxic clouds of pesticide.

In other words, the party’s over (for the moment).

Like those apocalypse-proof denizens of the baseboard, governments aren’t too keen on the idea of having a light shined on their activities, either. The more exposed their activities are to scrutiny, the more likely someone is to ask uncomfortable questions (Three grand charged to the Holiday Inn? I didn’t know they had a presidential suite. They don’t? Maybe it was those mini-bar Snickers, then. All of them. On the entire fifth floor).

The move to shine even more light into Virginia’s budget is the topic of my latest column. I take a spin through Commonwealth Data Point to see where the money is going, and find lots and lots of data.

But for all the numbers and all the names, one critical piece of the puzzle is missing: Context.

For example, why did someone at VDOT charge over $500 at a Bass Pro Shop? There might be a legitimate reason for this expenditure (after all, how many people still dig up their own night crawlers?). But you’ll never find out why the money was spent there, or at any number of tire centers, or hardware stores or newspapers because there’s no context for the charge.

Putting the state’s finances in perspective is one of the goals of transparency. It will allow some, of course, to say that the holy trinity of waste, fraud and abuse is rampant and needs to be addressed immediately. Others will be able to discern spending patterns — who the favored vendors are, why spending increases in December, and more. Still others will look at the mess and wonder how they can get in on the good times (cut-rate night crawler salesmen will be beating down VDOT’s door at any moment).

The legislature had a shot at passing a wide-ranging transparency bill in this session, but refused. Meanwhile, other states are passing measures either unanimously or by executive order. Some are more comprehensive than others, but all are aimed at the same, general goal:

Turning the lights on, and seeing what scurries toward the baseboard.

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  1. Groveton Avatar

    “Cockroaches famously scurry for their hideouts when the lights come on. Why do they hide? Light brings trouble — swatting brooms, smashing feet and toxic clouds of pesticide.”.

    Poetry. Pure poetry.

    Very well written.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    The state level is certainly questionable. But its even worse at the municipal level. Case in point: the VaPAF/Center Stage downtown Richmond arts center project was forced through with even more city taxpayer money. We may never know how much because the deal was done with FOIA exemptions. Now the Richmond public schools remain illegal without proper ADA funding and City Hall may not have heat next winter.

  3. Groveton Avatar

    Anon 3:48 –

    What is the “municipal level”? There is only one state of Virginia but there are lots of municipalities in Virginia. I assume you are referring to the City of Richmond.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Look, I can understand why we might not want government to be subject to explaining every single wave of a muckraker’s flashlight. But, as your column indicates, lots of little things add up to real money. At a minimum, charge card expenditures should carry some explanation and perhaps some code–a 1, 2, or 3, with a standard explanation: 1=emergency purchase (that tire or duct tape), 2=personal training or ally charge (to cover all the cash flowing to the Chambers for their banquets or those wonderful seminars), or 3=special event or situation (the hip waders at Bass Pro Shop for the VDOT bridge workers). That way, we could tally the category charges and zero in on the guidance for the categories, or the habitual users, or whatever.

    Just an idea. There is significant abuse in state spending–not necessarily venal, but mostly to give certain employees or appointees a small measure of arbitrary “power.”

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