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Good week for cause of good government

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By Richard Eckstrom

I was sitting at my desk recently when I got a call I had long awaited: The city of Greenville had decided to post its spending details on its web site.

It had been more than a year since I’d driven to Greenville to meet with Mayor Knox White and city staff to talk with them about posting their spending details online as part of a local government transparency initiative I had launched. The initiative encourages cities, towns and counties to give their constituents easy Internet access to information about how they are spending public funds.

Now that Greenville is participating, there are 24 local units of governments that post their itemized spending details on the web, allowing taxpayers to see like never before how tax dollars are spent.

But that wasn’t the only good news I got that week. The following day, the University of South Carolina notified me that it also had begun disclosing its spending details online.

I’ve long advocated financial transparency for the state’s public colleges and universities, and earlier this year teamed up with reformers in the Legislature to implement a voluntary transparency initiative for higher education. Under this initiative, institutions of higher education were asked to voluntarily post their spending details online – even in the absence of a law requiring them to do so.

With USC joining this transparency initiative, 16 public colleges and universities now disclose their spending on the web.

As more schools committed to taking this step – and as this higher education transparency initiative gained momentum – legislation requiring online financial transparency was introduced and passed by the legislature and signed by the governor. So, it’s now the law.

But the law requires them to post their spending starting in about a year – August 2012.

The 16 colleges that are already doing so – and that have begun doing so on their own, without being compelled to by law – are certainly to be commended.

The very next day brought even more great news: I learned that the school board of Richland County School District 2 voted to post their district’s spending details online.

Two weeks earlier, the school board had voted not to take this step. The reason they gave is one I’ve heard often: They worried it would be too costly, and that they would need to purchase new software.

That’s a myth that I’ve worked to dispel as I’ve travelled the state to meet with local officials about spending transparency. The truth is, spending transparency is neither costly nor difficult.

So I arranged a meeting with the school board chairwoman and the district’s chief financial officer. I urged them to post their spending details online and offered to assist them.

I used the occasion to discuss my own experiences urging local governments to adopt this kind of transparency, including how I first approached my hometown of Irmo about it. While Irmo officials originally expressed reservations, they decided to give it a shot. They not only learned that posting this important financial information is easy and inexpensive, but they set an example that was soon followed by others.

The city of Charleston soon followed suit, as did Anderson County, and then the city of Cayce, and then 20 other local governments.

In the end, Richland County School District 2 made the right choice. Now, every school district in the state either displays its check register online, or has committed to doing so in the very near future.

The day will soon come when all public spending is easily available for taxpayers to see. That day should come sooner, rather than later.

The actions by the city of Greenville, the University of South Carolina, and Richland County School District 2 mean government in South Carolina just became a little bit more open.  That’s a big win for the taxpayers.

 It was a good week for the cause of good government.