On Tuesday, the voters in Boone County, Columbia, Ashland, and Harrisburg went to the polls to decide whether or not to impose new use taxes to fund more government services. As you can see here, voters rejected each proposed tax.
Those decisions are newsworthy on their own, but there was an interesting quote from a Columbia council member regarding the failed proposals. Councilman Matt Pitzer said voters have a natural tendency to reject use-tax measures because voters don’t trust government to spend their tax dollars responsibly. How might trust be restored? According to Pitzer,
We do that by making smart financial and fiscal decisions . . . and being open and transparent in our spending and where the citizens’ tax dollars are going.
I could not agree more, which is why we started the Checkbook Project, which is intended to track the expenditures of each Missouri municipality over the past five years. Notably, when we requested data for the project from Columbia, the city was more than accommodating in providing the data we requested. At no cost to us, we got the information in an easily searchable Excel file. Also notable is that when we made the request of Ashland, the city was going to charge $20.00 for their records—still a pretty reasonable figure, in stark contrast to some of the responses from other municipalities we've received to date. (More on those interactions in a later blog post.)
When government asks for more money out of our pockets, we have every right to know what that money will be spent on. Even when policymakers are conscientious in their management of tax dollars, we should remember (per H.L. Mencken) that conscience is merely “the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.” When municipalities commit to transparency, they introduce that very possibility, and the expectation of public scrutiny should result in better policy.