Commentary: Shift is toward true transparancy in financesOnce upon a time responsible citizen oversight and engagement in local government was considered the cornerstone of a successful democracy.
By: Mark Haveman, The Republican Eagle
Once upon a time responsible citizen oversight and engagement in local government was considered the cornerstone of a successful democracy.
In the 1930s, this notion wasn’t just a philosophical exercise it had real practical relevance. The Great Depression was creating extraordinary economic stress on citizens, and local government spending — pretty much the only government that mattered back then — demanded careful citizen attention.
Over time we got a lot wealthier and the scope, scale, and complexity of local government grew exponentially. Fewer citizens had the interest, time or capability to fill this increasingly demanding and challenging role.
In its place the “benevolent bureaucracy” model took hold. Hire very talented and dedicated administrators to manage all this complexity for us, make sure public services are delivered in accordance with citizen expectations and do it at an acceptable tax price. No need to look over the shoulder.
In fact, greater citizen participation might be a liability rather than an asset, if it results in levels of populism that makes it more difficult for these capable professionals to do their jobs.
Now the landscape is shifting once again. Economic stresses have returned in spades and local government face what the state economist has described as a “new normal.” Based on current policies and historical trends, city expenditures are expected to grow at a 5.5 percent annual rate through 2025 — a whopping 49 percent faster rate than city revenues, according to the League of Minnesota Cities.
As a result the League seeks “to get Minnesotans of all walks of life, in all regions of the state, thinking and talking about what the future holds for their communities.” They are “confident that the collective thinking of Minnesotans throughout the state will lead policymakers toward better solutions for our communities.”
Citizen involvement is not just back in vogue, it’s the cornerstone of our future.
And the first two questions of every newly involved citizen should be, “Just what expenses are growing and exactly why are they growing so fast?”
Working its way through the Legislature is House file 1954 to require public budget reporting by expenditure type (salaries, benefits, supplies, etc.) to complement conventional budget reporting by program area (public safety, parks and recreation, etc.)
This proposal for greater spending transparency is really just one small piece of a complex puzzle that can help citizens assemble the story of their local government and property tax burdens. We can’t have meaningful citizen participation in the future of our local governments if the escalating cost structures and the policies dictating them remain largely invisible to taxpayers.
But the need for this transparency enhancement is also prompted by something much more fundamental. One of Minnesota’s public policy legends, Dr. John Brandl, commented long ago that “government organizations and the people in them can be entirely devoted to serving the public. They can also be self-serving, putting the convenience of the organization and its employees ahead of the interest and needs of citizens.”
He noted that “private interests working in government can sometime conflict with the public interest on matters of pay, accountability, or whether to introduce innovations that could accomplish more work for lower expense.”
This is the chronic condition of government — a condition exacerbated by monopoly power and the ability to package private interests to citizens in the wrapping paper of essential public goods and services.
No amount of skilled, civic-minded management changes this. It is why prudent oversight is needed in times of abundance as well as challenge. It is why accountability and transparency measures are so important.
Minnesota is fortunate to have an abundance of extraordinarily talented and dedicated individuals in public sector administration who do a fantastic job. But their existence does not diminish the need for the type of citizen oversight that was the basis for effective, accountable government nearly a century ago.
If it takes the economic conditions and budget challenges of today to remind us of this truism, it’s a silver lining in our current circumstances.
Mark Haveman is executive director of the Minnesota Taxpayers Association.