State government ethics a work in (sort of) progress

March 26, 2013 

As lawmakers continue debating ethics and transparency in Georgia government, with the hourglass emptying fast on the 2013 session, yet another independent nonprofit think tank has given the state a less than encouraging grade.

The Georgia Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) has issued a report titled "Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," the fourth such study PIRG has conducted. Georgia gets a "C+" in government spending transparency.

Yes, studies like this involve a certain amount of subjectivity, and assessments like "grades" and "rankings" are open to reasonable debate.

Facts aren't. And some of the facts about public access to information in Georgia should give lawmakers -- not to mention every Georgia taxpayer and voter -- plenty to ponder.

The diverse list of states PIRG credits with the best public access to information would suggest that this study has no partisan or ideological agenda: Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Oklahoma top the honor roll for accountability.

Georgia does earn credit as an "emerging" state, which PIRG defines as one providing searchable "checkbook-level" information on most kinds of state spending. That's the good news, such as it is. The otherwise mediocre (at best) assessment is not due to the information Georgia provides, but to what it doesn't.

For example, PIRG noted that Georgia does not include financial data on tax credits for economic development, or the projected vs. actual benefits of such subsidies. You can find out what the state spends on food stamps, but corporate welfare is still fiercely protected insider information.

None of this should come as any surprise. You need look no farther than "Peach Pundit" Charlie Harper's column on this very page to see some of the yawning gaps in Georgia's ethics safety net. The $100 cap on lobbyist gifts does not limit how many or how often such gifts can be bestowed, making the cap effectively meaningless. A line item you won't see on Georgia's spending site -- for the simple reason that it doesn't exist -- is funding for a real ethics commission with real authority. And, as noted in Tuesday's editorial, we won't know where the considerable public expense for capital punishment is going, because some of the Gold Dome Honorables want to make details about that procedure a state secret.

"Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government," said Laura Murray of PIRG Education Fund. "It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible."

"Following the money" in Georgia needs to get substantially more doable in 2014 and beyond, because at the moment C-plus sounds like an absurdly generous grade.

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