Monday, March 14, 2011

Let the Sunshine In

My, my, how things change. Remember how the Republicans used to love to indulge in much gnashing of the teeth and rending of the garments over putting all state spending online? For an example, here is the first line from a now-archived story at the DNews, Feb. 5, 2009:

House Republicans are renewing their push for "transparency"-- putting the myriad details of state government spending on-line for scrutiny by Michigan's 10 million residents.

It came up all the time. The House Republicans wouldn't reveal how they would pay for it, but they were determined that it was the panacea for our budget problems. The Mac Center even has a special website called "Show Michigan the Money!", which tried to track and chide the Governor's Office for not detailing every single expenditure of every single state department, complete with indignant press releases and links to what details they did have - especially when it concerned schools and union employees, of course. You can google if you like and see. "Transparency" was all the rage. For a while anyway.

Fast forward a few years, power has switched hands, and suddenly the idea of scrutinizing every single dime that gets spent isn't such a pressing priority when the Republicans are the ones doing the spending. Funny, that.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's move to make the state budget "simple, fair and efficient" may instead be leaving the public in the dark about how its money will be spent.

The new Republican governor wants to roll the entire state budget into just two bills -- one for education and another for everything else, rather than considering most departments separately. His proposals offer few specifics, instead providing short lists of programs and a suggested level of spending for each.

His idea is to let the departments determine where to spend the money, figuring they are the ones who would best know where it should go. In theory, that sounds great. But in practice?

But the governor's line items for programs and spending wouldn't be binding. That basically could allow unelected department heads rather than legislators to decide how the money should be spent, said Craig Thiel, state affairs director for the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council in Lansing.

"It's already ... difficult to follow the budget. I don't think that this makes it any easier," said Thiel, who often analyzes state spending. "Block grants is a good way to describe it. It's not even program budgeting."

The lack of specifics concerns citizen watchdog groups such as Common Cause Michigan. People really had a sense of what was being funded when they could see department budgets laid out program by program, said executive director Christina Kuo. Doing it Snyder's way "really goes against his commitment to open government and transparency."

Unelected department heads, appointed by the executive, free to spend as they wish. Hmmm. Wonder how the Republicans would feel about that if we had a Democratic governor. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding.) The legislators themselves are struggling with the omnibus idea, just as they are struggling with raising taxes - after they spent years screaming that they couldn't raise taxes. It's gotta hurt your head.

If it weren't so darned frustrating, it would actually be kind of funny to watch them spin 180 on all the policy they once trumpeted as essential.