Transparency-talking politicians make taxpayers beg for staff names and salaries
"No government has ever misspent, overspent, stolen or otherwise misused so much as a single nickel taken from any taxpayer."
"Guns don't kill people, people kill people."
These statements are true because only people — not their tools — may be held responsible for bad behavior. As media and transparency advocates take notice of Sunshine Week 2009, this axiom should serve as a ruler to measure the sincerity of politicians posing as champions of government spending transparency. Like the villain with a gun, a bad actor on a public payroll can be a signal of great misdeeds.
Examples abound, such as the son of embattled U.S. Sen. Roland Burris of Illinois getting a job on the state payroll from Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former governor who appointed Burris to the Senate seat under extraordinarily controversial circumstances. The unprecedented cronyism (even for Detroit) of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's "friends and family plan" hiring policy is another example. It is very important for the public to know who is getting taxpayer-funded jobs when a politician puts out a "help wanted" sign.
With so many of the Michigan's elected officials championing state spending transparency, you would expect that the staffing details of these politicians would be easy to find. And you'd be disappointed. With the exception of two state representatives, most of the politicians saying that they want to shine a brighter light on public finances are keeping the taxpayers in the dark about who is getting the tax dollars under their direct control.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm was talking transparency almost as soon as she took office. Executive Order 2003-8, issued on Feb. 27, 2003, directed the creation of a task force that would lead to the establishment "by the Department of Management and Budget of an online, searchable database of state vendor and contract information to increase the transparency of state contractual activities." But this worthwhile baby step in the direction of moving state spending details from the 19th century to the 21st soon became a "get out of jail free" card that the administration has waved whenever presented with more thorough transparency requests.
In 2007, the Lansing State Journal attempted to acquire the names and salaries of the political appointees working for the governor. The newspaper reported that the governor's office "would not disclose the salaries of her staff, nor would the governor's office disclose the number of employees serving on her or the lieutenant governor's staff." Last year, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's "Show Michigan the Money" transparency project again asked the governor's office to regularly post on a state Web site both the names and salaries of state employees, but the governor's office asserted that "this level of detail provides little value to the taxpayer."
While the governor is the most powerful and highest profile state official to advocate greater sunlight on spending, and then demur when it came to her own staff, she is not alone. On Feb. 5, Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and the Republican caucus in the Michigan House of Representatives held a press conference to boast of their own transparency accomplishments and to call upon the governor to create a searchable database for all state spending.
House Minority Leader Kevin Elsenheimer, R-Bellaire, proclaimed himself the first lawmaker in state history to post his spending online. And yet, with an annual office budget of $482,000, the vast majority of which is spent on salaries for his staff, Rep. Elsenheimer's historic online report does not list a single staff name or salary. This oversight is replicated by nearly every member of his supposedly pro-transparency caucus (most of whom have an annual budget of $100,000 to both pay for staff and all other office expenses.) Just two legislators with two full-time employees each, Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, and Rep. Justin Amash, R-Kentwood, provided a detailed picture of their spending by posting names and salaries. (It bears noting that both lawmakers are new, having just taken office in January.)
As with the governor's 2003 Executive Order, the attorney general provided an online database of his contracts last year. Since then, he has repeatedly called upon the governor to commit to a state spending Web site comparable to the Missouri Accountability Portal (http://mapyourtaxes.mo.gov.) This is indeed a laudable goal for him to support, as the impressive Missouri Web site provides that state's spending data in a searchable format and in great detail... including the names and salaries of state employees. And yet, though the examples of Reps. McMillin and Amash show that providing names and salaries is possible for even the newest of state officials, the attorney general has not taken this step in his own office, even after a year of demanding a higher transparency standard for the rest of state government.
Likewise, while Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land currently provides the most complete expenditure report of any state official, even this laudable effort does not include employee names and salaries.
Tax dollars do not spend themselves. Ultimately, any champion of state spending transparency is effectively demanding more exposure of who is getting the dollars that have been taken from the hard-working people of Michigan. Public officials who seriously want to bring about this important goal should set an example and start the sunshine at home.
(Editor's Note: Rep. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy, posted staff names and salaries on his Web site less than 48 hours after this commentary was published.)
Kenneth M. Braun is a policy analyst specializing in fiscal and budgetary issues with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.