Missouri Auditor’s Office Should Require Muni Checkbook Transparency
For the last couple years, Show-Me Institute writers have led the way on investigating transparency problems in Missouri government. If state and local government can take your money, then it imposes an obligation of transparency.
In fact, checkbook transparency is an issue that multiple branches of Missouri government have consistently recognized since the rollout of the Institute’s Show-Me Checkbook projects. In 2018, the Missouri Treasurer’s office introduced the aptly named ”Show-Me Checkbook,” cataloguing state spending in a comprehensive way that, to that time, had only existed on the Show-Me Institute website. Meanwhile, the Missouri legislature introduced, and the House passed, legislation that would have required city governments in Missouri to report these checkbook records to the state for publication.
But could the Missouri Auditor’s Office get ahead of them all and deliver taxpayers a game-changing transparency win?
Strong municipal transparency laws are few and far-between around the country, but the Auditor’s Office could make the Show-Me State a leader on the issue by leveraging the office’s existing rule-making power. Section 105.145 of Missouri’s Revised Statutes states:
2. The governing body of each political subdivision in the state shall cause to be prepared an annual report of the financial transactions of the political subdivision in such summary form as the state auditor shall prescribe by rule, except that the annual report of political subdivisions whose cash receipts for the reporting period are ten thousand dollars or less shall only be required to contain the cash balance at the beginning of the reporting period, a summary of cash receipts, a summary of cash disbursements and the cash balance at the end of the reporting period. (Emphasis mine)
Put another way, the auditor has the ability to define what will be required of annual financial summary reports submitted by Missouri cities. That summary can, then, be required to include a host of financial information, including a listing of transactions undertaken by a city above a certain threshold; the public contact information of vendors with whom the city does business; revenues received and from what sources; and any other relevant information that would help the auditor do her job. The auditor’s office could then offer an alternative to filling out all of this information in the summary form she prescribes: to simply export the expenditure data from the city’s accounting software in a machine-readable format. Implementing this reform through existing reporting requirements reaffirms that there would be no additional cost to cities to transparently report their spending. With this reform, cities could go through the process of filling out the auditor’s form pursuant to the auditor’s requirements, or they could largely just submit the documents that would have gone into their financial summaries anyway. From there, publication of the checkbooks online by the auditor or other department would be a simple and inexpensive, if not costless, undertaking.
I have been impressed by the Auditor’s work on transparency issues in the past, and I think if her office pursued a project like this, it would serve as a model for transparency initiatives across the United States. Missourians deserve to know what their local governments are spending their money on, and it appears the Auditor’s Office may be able to deliver it to them.