Who knew that giving up information about their spending habits could be such a joy for government officials? It's not unusual to find newspaper types calling for more tools to help people look behind the curtains of government, but it's been remarkable in recent months to see government types celebrating it.
Gov. Pat Quinn started the bidding last year with the state of Illinois Transparency and Accountability portal (http://accountability.illinois.gov/). Last month, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka was positively exultant when she met with our editorial board the day she announced her new Web page tracking state revenues and expenses. The Ledger, as the comptroller's office calls the website (http://www.ledger.illinoiscomptroller.com/) allows state residents to monitor, among other things, spending and income in the state practically as it happens within each state agency, You can easily cross reference state contracts and political contributions, and, if you're the kind of person who likes to do things to make yourself depressed or angry, you can follow the state's fiscal condition on a daily basis.
This week, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas was just about as excited to announce her office's new initiative allowing county property owners to monitor tax levies and debt for each agency to which they pay taxes. The site (http://www.cookcountytreasurer.com/taxingdistrictsearch.aspx) permits taxpayers to see the amount of pension liability each taxing body faces and how much is funded, the average salary increase for employees and other information.
On the heels of news stories about charges that a downstate Dixon city official skimmed as much as $53 million from public coffers over the past two decades, state Sen. Dan Duffy, a Barrington Republican, held a news conference this week to promote legislation he has been pushing for years that would require local taxing bodies to put more of their financial information, including regular checkbook statements, online. Daily Herald state government writer Mike Riopell wrote about the news conference for the Suburban Political Recount blog at our website.
Do we take all this sudden new candidness as a sign that government officials have abandoned the smoke-filled rooms, or that they're at least willing now to let us see what goes on in there? You might want to withhold judgment on that one for a while. Many of these initiatives seem calculated to steer you toward information about someone else. Duffy's idea, welcome though it may be, can at the very least be perceived as suggesting that local agencies be pulled up onto the public stage to be scrutinized along with state officials. And Pappas, noting that Cook County has not increased its levy in 13 years, all but declared that her purpose is to deflect criticism about debt and spending away from county, state and federal officials.
"The problem's local. The problem's local," she insisted, stressing that Cook County residents can plug their property ID number into the treasurer's website and immediately see how levies for their local bodies have increased over the past decade -- by two-thirds in some cases and by nearly half on average.
So, interestingly, this new rush to transparency isn't necessarily ending the blame game in politics, and it may well be that as much as anything it demonstrates that you can say almost anything with numbers. But at least now you don't have to rely just on hope and the many uncertainties of a FOIA request to get some of the most basic answers about government spending. More and more, you can find the information online and determine for yourself what the problem is.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.