Online budgets gives power to people

By: TheRichmond County Daily Journal

While some state lawmakers have worked to make government more secretive, budget writers took a stand for openness and accountability before the General Assembly adjourned last month.

A provision requiring state agencies, counties, cities and school boards to begin posting their budgets online starting next April is included in the 507-page spending plan Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law on Sept. 18. It’s a rare and encouraging step forward for open government.

Section 7.17 of the 2015 Appropriations Act directs the state chief information officer to “establish a state budget transparency Internet website to provide information on budget expenditures for each state agency for each fiscal year beginning 2015-16.”

The information officer will also “coordinate with counties, cities and local education agencies to facilitate the posting of their respective local entity budgetary and spending data on their respective Internet websites,” according to the budget.

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, who co-chairs the Information Technology Committee, introduced the requirements as an amendment to the budget bill on June 17. The measure passed 47-2, and we’re pleased to report our own Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, cast an affirmative vote.

While state and local budgets and expenditures are already public record, the online availability requirement makes these files more accessible. Residents will be able to visit their city’s or school board’s website and see how taxpayer money is being spent with a few mouse clicks.

The budgetary transparency amendment may have a limited scope, but it provides a road map for the future of public records access in North Carolina. If expanded to include more records, it could short-circuit a recent trend toward government secrecy.

Some state agencies and cities, including Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, began adding high markups for fulfillment of public records requests in 2013. The fees can exceed $50 per hour and represent the cost of salary and benefits for the workers who make the copies.

After an outcry from open government groups and pushback from Attorney General Roy Cooper, who argued that state sunshine laws do not authorize such fees, McCrory’s office began applying the surcharge for requests that take more than four hours to fulfill. The meter used to start after just a half-hour of work.

Public records price-gouging puts information out of reach for most North Carolina residents. McCrory would do well to scrap the fees entirely, renewing commitments to transparency he made while running for governor in 2012 and depriving Cooper, a Democrat, the chance to score populist points in his 2016 bid to unseat the Republican incumbent.

While paper copies of public records will remain available, posting budgets and other documents online is sure to reduce demand for copying service in government offices. It’s a time-saver for inquisitive Tar Heels and harried city clerks alike.

Brock deserves credit for beginning the process of widening public records access through technology. We call on state lawmakers to continue making information owned by the people of North Carolina more accessible.

TheRichmond County Daily Journal