Friday, April 03, 2009

Project Sunlight: One Year Out In The Open

Greater Transparency, Same Old Spending Habits

If there's one thing that causes the hairs on taxpayer's necks to rise, its spending tax dollars frivolously.

Now, how does one differentiate good spending, on projects that generally benefit the public, from reckless spending, which wastes money that, quite frankly, we no longer have?

Well, that's what elected officials -- including the Attorney General and the state Comptroller -- are supposed to do, assuring that our elected representatives, especially those in Albany who hold the budget in hand and the purse strings over our heads, spend those hard-earned tax dollars wisely.

How do we know what's being spent and where? Is there transparency, let alone accountability?

Too often, we don't know the "what" or "where," until after the "said" and "done," reading about who spent how much on what pet project in a newspaper expose.

And while New York's budget process remains secretive -- the three men in the room reduced to one man and two also rans -- there's been, on some level slightly above the molecular, a move toward transparency vis-a-vis the millions of dollars spent each year in so-called member item dollars.

A little over a year ago, as reported on this blog, New York, under the auspices of the Attorney General's office, created Project Sunlight, a web-based means of tracking spending of tax dollars in New York.

Its all laid not, if not altogether up-to-the-minute, including 2006-07 member items (gentlemen, we're now spending 2009 tax dollars), member items by county, lobbyists, and information on elected officials, ranging from bills sponsored to campaign contributions.

Of course, all the transparency in the world goes for naught if you rarely if ever bother to look at the projects being funded, the cost to taxpayers, and who benefits on the public dime.

Much of the spending can be substantiated and should be continued, such as grants to school districts, hospitals, senior centers, youth programs, and fire departments. Other hand-outs, like those for the replacement of an oven at a private club or the purchase of equipment at a fraternal lodge, are more questionable in terms of value to the public, and must be scrutinized. And a few, such as $1500 awarded to Korea-Cold War Families of the Missing "for a fax machine so as to keep the families of America's 8,144 POWs and MIAs from the Korean War with up to date information," seem downright silly (unless, we suppose, you happen to be one of those families).

Clearly, not all spending of taxpayer money is evil. Indeed, most of it -- if not a bit too much of it, in these times of economic strife, is taxpayer money well spent.

That said, we should, each of us, be keenly aware of what is going to whom, and no less concerned that New York tax dollars are going where they are needed, in service, in some tangible fashion capable of passing the "straight face test," to the public from whence they came.

May the bright, cleansing light of day continue to glare upon the spending habits of the New York Legislature, and, every now and then, consider lifting your head toward the light, perusing Project Sunlight's databases to see exactly who is paying whom with your dime.

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