Soon, you’ll be able to track every tax dollar

OLYMPIA — Very soon you may not need to ask state lawmakers how they’re spending your tax dollars because you’ll be able to find out on your own.

Right down to what you paid for the paper and pens in their offices.

Legislation waiting to be signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire would create a Web site providing a quick and easy means of searching details in the state’s operating, capital and transportation budgets.

“This will give the public an opportunity to learn more and see what is going on down there in Olympia,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish. “It’s in the best interests of the general public to have access to this information.”

Over time, its existence may even help restore a bit of the public’s confidence in government as they gain understanding of what goes into making the state’s budgets, he said.

No lawmaker voted against Senate Bill 6818 as it worked its way through the Legislature and onto Gregoire’s desk.

“The governor is still reviewing the bill,” spokesman Aaron Toso said Wednesday.

The governor has until April 5 to sign it, veto it or allow it to take effect without her signature.

Kristiansen co-authored nearly identical legislation in 2007, but it never got a hearing.

“It was an idea whose time has come,” said state Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, who also introduced legislation this year to establish a searchable budget site.

Jason Mercier, Government Reform director for the Washington Policy Center, said this is the type of tool that enlightens the public on how its government works.

It “will help connect taxpayers with the spending decisions being made on their behalf by shining a light on what is being purchased and accomplished with their tax dollars,” he said.

Mercier helped draft the legislation. It is modeled on laws in Texas and Missouri, two states that make it possible to find expenditures by an agency, by a subject, for individual contracts and to vendors.

Under the proposed law in Washington, the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program would set up the online resource by Jan. 1, 2009. LEAP, as it is known in Olympia, is already a portal for online access to proposed and adopted budgets.

As in those other states, this bill requires that users be able to drill down to find the dollars spent in individual programs or, on a larger scale, an entire department.

Information on revenues will be available, too. There is also supposed to be a link to the Office of Financial Management’s list of nongovernment contract recipients.

And, this Web site also would tie users to data on state agencies’ workloads and caseloads and performance goals that they must meet.

“This should help with the budget debate,” Mercier said.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and interest groups will have good information as they consider why a program deserves funding or not, he said.

Stevens said this could prove to be a means for uncovering wasteful spending. It happened in Texas and led to several million dollars in savings, she said.

“Transparency in government is going to give people an opportunity to give their two cents’ worth and we might be able to save money,” she said.

Stevens said she won’t be surprised if state employees are the ones telling lawmakers where to look.

“I believe that this may be tool that has hidden benefits,” she said.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Tracking taxes

Washington could soon have a searchable Web site for the state budget, modeled after similar ones in Texas and Missouri. Here the sites for those states:

Texas: www.window.state.tx.us

Missouri: http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov

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