When Phil Oehlerking and I started the Municipal Checkbook Project two years ago, we thought that the bulk of our time would be spent showcasing how Missouri cities spend the money they take from Missourians.
As it turned out, though, most of our time was spent just trying to get spending documents in the first place, and most cities that responded wanted us to pay them to produce these records. Battlefield wanted $35,000, Hollister $25,000, and Buckner $11,000, to name a few of the more outrageous requests. Even the seat of state government, Jefferson City, wanted nearly $1,000 for the public to see what it was spending money on! The list goes on.
These quoted prices are troubling, not only because of the potential conflicts such demands have with the spirit and letter of Sunshine Law requirements, but it also raises the specter of whether there are ulterior motives for pricing out people requesting this information. Perversely, the cities that are probably most deserving of scrutiny under this “pay-to-see our spending” approach are the least likely to get it.
I’m highlighting this issue because a bill that would require cities to publish their checkbooks is now facing blowback from a House committee on precisely these grounds—that many Missouri cities don’t want to publish their spending records, which itself is a startling revelation.
But now, some state legislators are apparently willing to oblige these cities, blocking and tackling against the citizens who want to see how cities spend the money that is taken from them.
Not only is this bad policy, but it is symptomatic of a larger misunderstanding among legislators of who they represent. State legislators weren’t elected to represent the cabal of Missouri’s local officials; they were elected to represent the people, whose money the state allows local government to take by way of taxes.
Geography should not dictate whether Missourians have transparent local government, and state officials should remind themselves of who, exactly, put them in office. Going to bat for local government subdivisions against the interests of the public is a bad call.