Voluntary participation questioned as Missouri law creates local government spending database

(The Center Square) – It’s hard to find opposition to a measure that would require governments to provide more financial transparency.

Legislation creating a database to track every penny spent by counties and municipalities was overwhelmingly approved and signed into law in June by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.

However, participation – sending financial information for posting on a state website – is voluntary.

“The Missouri transparency bill is a great first step at opening up local government spending,” said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of openthebooks.com, a nonprofit government watchdog organization. “However, lawmakers should mandate transparency as a prerequisite to receive state funds. Why should local governments receive state funding if they are not transparent with taxpayers?”

Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, questioned the state’s role.

“I’m not sure why a government program was necessary, especially when it appears that participation is voluntary,” Roland said.

A provision in House Bill 271, which became law on Aug. 28, creates the “Missouri Local Government Expenditure Database.” The bill, sponsored by Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, passed 147-2 in the House and 29-3 in the Senate.

The database will be available on the Office of Administration website and provide the ability to download information without charge. Municipalities or counties with websites must display a prominent internet link to the database. It will contain expenditures made during each fiscal year that begins after Dec. 31, 2022.

“Citizens must be able to follow the money,” Andrzejewski said. “After all, it’s our tax dollars that government spends.”

Roland praised the goal of providing financial transparency but prefers other ways to achieve it.

“I would rather this option be available than to not have the option at all,” Roland said. “But frankly, this is something that should have been done without governmental interference. There are a lot of private groups that have already created websites that bring public information to light. They request information from governments and make it available to the public. I think this may be a better solution as it’s not voluntary for government entities to provide the information. Once a citizen makes the request for the information, they must produce it.”

The law includes a way for taxpayers to mandate participation by their local government. If 5% of the registered voters of a jurisdiction voting in the last general municipal election request participation by a written letter sent by certified mail, the municipality or county must comply and provide expenditures biannually.

The law requires the following information for each expenditure:

  • the amount and date of payment;
  • the vendor to whom the expenditure was paid, unless the disclosure of the vendor’s name would violate a confidentiality requirement, in which case the vendor may be listed as confidential;
  • the purpose;
  • the municipality or county that made the expenditure or requested the expenditure be made.

“Line-by-line expenditures need mandated transparency, as you can hide a lot of corruption in a budget,” Andrzejewski said. “It’s how we hold the political class accountable for tax and spend decisions.”

The database will not include any confidential information or any information that isn’t a public record. The state protected itself by adding it isn’t liable for disclosing confidential information or non-public records.

The law requires the Office of Administration to provide each municipality and county participating in the database with a template. Municipal and county governments are eligible for financial reimbursement for costs incurred for participating in the database.

Expenditures include any monetary payment from a municipality or county to any vendor, including payments, distributions, loans, advances, reimbursements, deposits or gifts.

Wiemann didn’t respond to phone and email messages sent during the past few weeks. He announced his candidacy on Aug. 31 for the state Senate seat of Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, who will complete his second four-year term in 2022.

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