Ohioans already have a way to find out what state, county, municipal and township governments are up to. But making public records requests can be tedious, especially if one is seeking documentation from multiple government agencies.
It shouldn’t be difficult to track how tax money is being spent, not when such information can easily be transferred electronically and placed on the Internet where anyone can access it.
While many states, including Indiana, already offer financial data online, Ohio is lagging far behind most states when it comes to accessibility.
Five bills which have been introduced in the Legislature could help the state catch up.
House Bill 175 would create a state government expenditure database that would allow residents to track how Ohio spends taxpayer money, and would include state and school district employee salaries.
The database would allow filtering by category of expense, by payment made to specific vendors, and by other criteria. It wouldn’t cost any extra money to create, according to state Treasurer Josh Mandel, whose office would maintain it.
Meanwhile, House Bills 321, 322, 323 and 324 would establish dataohio.gov, which would increase the state’s public records transparency by encouraging state and local governments to put records online in formats that are easy to use.
Once in place, residents could make “apple-to-apple” comparisons of their government to other ones in the state.
While participation in data.ohio.gov would be voluntary, there would be incentives to participate. One of the bills would provide $10,000 grants to governments to help them move their records online.
But, despite numerous committee hearings, bipartisan support and backing from numerous organizations, including the Ohio Newspaper Association, the five bills could die on the vine this year.
Lawmakers must not allow that to happen and should move the proposals through the House before summer recess. That would allow the Senate to consider them when it reconvenes.
Once the bills pass, any taxpayer with access to a computer would be able to better monitor the spending habits of government and look for signs of waste or abuse.
The state would benefit by having a more informed electorate, governments wouldn’t be as burdened with individual records requests, and taxpayers would be able to hold their decision-makers more accountable.
There are other pressing matters for the Legislature to complete this year, but perhaps none that would benefit so many.
In the latest U.S. Public Interest Research Groups report on online government data availability, Ohio received a grade of D-minus. Only four states did worse. Clearly, we can do better when it comes to transparency.
By approving House Bill 175 and HBs 321-324, lawmakers have a chance to move Ohio forward and reinforce the fundamental concept that public records belong to all of us.
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