Richmond Times Dispatch: Editorial: State taxpayers have right to know, too

RICHMOND TIMES DISPATCH

Despite the current political gridlock in both Richmond and Washington, voters elected lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — to get things done. One of those things is providing more transparency and more accountability over how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent.

The federal Taxpayers Right-To-Know Act would require the U.S. government to issue a public “report card” listing the details of every federal program, including costs, performance metrics, the number of employees needed to administer it and the number of beneficiaries. It would also be applicable to programs that provide federal grants, loans and loan guarantees, in addition to direct appropriations.

The first version of the bill was introduced back in 2011 by Sen. James Lankford, R–Okla., but the Senate has never actually voted on it. Lankford introduced it again (S.2177) in July with 10 bipartisan cosponsors that still don’t include either Sen. Mark Warner or Sen. Tim Kaine, both Virginia Democrats.

The House version, sponsored by Rep. Tim Walberg, R–Mich., passed unanimously in 2016, but went nowhere in the Senate. Walberg has introduced it again this year (H.R. 3830), with just five cosponsors so far, all of them Democrats — including freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D–7th. The other members of the Virginia delegation should step up and support this bill.

“All too often taxpayer dollars go down a black hole at agencies across the federal government,” Walberg said, adding that “having this information at our fingertips provides an opportunity to evaluate and streamline programs, eliminate waste, and improve outcomes.”

The fact that such commonsense legislation has not been passed for years shows how difficult it is to get any sort of accountability for the billions of tax dollars that are spent every year. Congress continues to spend money the nation doesn’t have creating new programs, but only rarely eliminates those that are not working.

According to the 2019 Congressional Pig Book compiled by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste, congressional earmarks alone totaled $15.3 billion in fiscal 2019, up 21.6% since 2017 and the largest increase since a 2011 earmark moratorium. To be included on the list, earmarks must meet at least two of CAGW’s seven criteria: They have not been the subject of congressional hearings; they are not specifically authorized or competitively awarded; they are requested by only one chamber of Congress and not requested by the president; they exceed the president’s budget request; and they only serve a local or special interest.

“The increase in pork-barrel spending occurs behind closed doors and hidden from taxpayers. There are no names of legislators attached to each earmark and limited information on where and how the money will be spent,” according to CAGW.

Although there are no earmarks in Richmond, billions of dollars of state taxpayer funds are also spent on numerous programs and initiatives with little feedback to voters on how effective they are in accomplishing their stated goals except in overly vague generalities. A state report card focusing on each state program would put that critical information into voters’ hands in an easy-to-understand format.

However, such disclosures are extremely uncomfortable for politicians, who would rather people didn’t know when the programs they championed fell flat, and for officials who don’t want any cuts to their particular state agency. But culling failed programs and directing the money saved to new priorities is the most efficient way to respond to changing circumstances without a relentless increase in taxes.

Each candidate running for the General Assembly this year should tell voters in their districts whether they would support a Virginia Taxpayers Right-To-Know bill for one simple reason: The people paying the commonwealth’s bills have the right to know exactly how their money is being spent.

 

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