| November 26, 2012

From spending to performance to tobacco, time for better transparency

Recently lawmakers participated in an interim study to consider ways to improve the operation and transparency of the state budget process and the Oklahoma legislature. OCPA presented recommendations to reform the state budget process during the study. Efforts to make the legislature and the state budget process more transparent are welcome news to citizens and taxpayers.

State agencies have an opportunity for better transparency. Given state government spending growth over the last decade and the federal government’s fiscal challenges, state agencies can -- and should -- better report their spending and performance results on state agency websites.

State agencies also have an opportunity for better transparency as it relates to efforts to influence human behavior. Because of the expansion of government and the marginalization and breakdown of civil society at the state and federal level, some state agencies are tasked with influencing human behavior.

Recently lawmakers participated in an interim study to review how state agencies address smoking and tobacco use. I had the opportunity to observe the interim study. During the study it became abundantly clear that some state bureaucrats (in health-related areas) are allowing their dislike for an industry or a product to interfere with their responsibility to provide the public with accurate information. While these bureaucrats will say they are not taking a prohibitionist approach, their actions at times suggest otherwise.

During the meeting, a senior-level official of the Health Department strongly advocated that taxes should be raised again on tobacco products to curb their use. But this suggestion contradicts a statement last week by a senior-level official of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority who said there has been little significant change in tobacco tax collections (no significant decline in collections since the tax hikes, therefore no significant decline in tobacco or cigarette usage) and that tobacco taxes provide a significant source of revenue to major health programs run by the state.

In a shocking denial of state sovereignty and state expertise, a senior official of the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) stated emphatically that the state of Oklahoma didn’t have the ability or expertise to regulate tobacco products where the federal government has failed and that states were better off relying on the federal government.

The study also revealed that TSET provides taxpayer dollars to the OETA –a non-core taxpayer funded organization that is complicit in assaults on job creators. While experts presented irrefutable research that use of tobacco products in a non-smoking way is less harmful than use of smoking products, bureaucrats hurled impassioned insults and at times baseless claims. In the meeting state bureaucrats conveyed that they knew what was best for citizens and opposed any efforts to be more transparent about the difference between the risks for smoking or non-smoking tobacco products.

Amending state information regarding tobacco use or smoking to more accurately disclose to citizens the risk associated with various products is only reasonable (current state information inaccurately portrays no difference). Such an action would be no different than efforts to educate citizens to use seatbelts, “don’t drink and drive,” avoid burning on windy days and a host of other efforts to make citizens aware of risks associated with various activities.

As a former state employee and regulator, I know the importance of providing citizens with all the information possible, particularly as it relates to decisions that are ultimately the responsibility of individual citizens. Whether it is the performance results of state spending, decisions surrounding human behavior, alternatives to government regulation or other areas, now more than ever we need those in state service committed to complete transparency in whatever task assigned.

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