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Tranparency in government matters

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By Mick Mulvaney

Our governor got a lot of attention a week or so ago when he threatened to refuse to borrow unemployment benefits money from the federal government until the South Carolina Employment Security Commission provided some details on how it operates.

And while the details of that move could make a good column in itself, I think it is worthwhile to use it as an introduction into the issue of “government transparency,” which promises to be a hot topic when the Legislature returns to Columbia this week.

Ask most folks if “government transparency” is important to them and you will likely get a lukewarm response. I know because I have asked, and, in my constituent surveys, transparency usually rates toward the bottom on hot-button issues. However, ask folks if they trust government, or understand government, or believe that the government is operating properly, and the survey elicits some very strong responses. Simply put, people either don’t trust their government, or don’t understand it, or both. That, in a nutshell, is what transparency is all about.

The governor fought over unemployment benefits because he had some valid questions about how the ESC works. He wanted information about how they count the unemployed, where unemployed workers were, and why they were unemployed. These all seem like reasonable questions.

But look at who is asking those questions – the governor. If he doesn’t understand how the ESC works, how should citizens be expected to understand it?  

Transparency is about making government comprehensible. It’s about allowing folks – other than the full-time, paid bureaucrats – the opportunity to learn just exactly how government works. Some topics are pretty easy to explain, such as how the government makes laws, but others are more difficult, such as how it creates regulations. Still others are near impossible, such as how the state spends billions of dollars of your money every single year.

We’ve already taken some small steps toward letting people know how government works. If you visit www.sc.gov/Spending Transparency, you can find some good information from the Comptroller General’s Office about how your money is spent.

But that is just the beginning. This year, we will be debating an “online checkbook,” which would make the spending habits of every government agency available to you. Want to know how much the Department of Health and Environmental Control spends on travel each year? That information could be readily available to you as soon as this summer.

The biggest transparency issue for now, however, is roll-call voting. South Carolina has one of the lowest on-the-record voting rates of any state in the nation. A great deal of what gets passed is done by “voice vote,” where individual votes of legislators are not recorded. That may be fine if we are naming a highway bypass for an esteemed citizen, but it starts to smell of treachery if we are voting on say, giving ourselves a pay raise. Doing those sorts of things off the record is what gives rise to mistrust from the citizens.

And rightly so. I am a member of the government, but in all honesty, I don’t trust it very much. I’ve seen up close that too much happens without anyone seeming to know how or why. Too often we learn after the fact that we have funded some questionable program or passed a burdensome regulation. That needs to stop, for lawmakers as well as citizens.

People are entitled to have a government that they can understand. And while this year, the Legislature will certainly face critical issues on  the economy, taxation and education, just to name a few, dealing with government transparency will and should be a priority.

S.C. Sen. Mick Mulvaney can be reached at (803) 246-1001 (local) or (803) 734-2937 (Columbia) or via e-mail at  MulvaneyM@schouse.org.