Good Government

Open The Books will open your eyes

May 4, 2018

Cody Ray Milner

The concept of transparent and accountable government dates to America’s Constitutional Convention days. James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Yet, as Madison points out, men are not angels, and government officials will inevitably seek to serve their own interests.

It is therefore essential that citizens know of government activities in order to hold elected representatives accountable. This idea is repeated in the preamble of the Oklahoma Open Records Act: “it is the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government.”

Part of OCPA’s mission is to shine sunlight on state government and help Oklahoma voters analyze and understand the full implications of laws, regulations, and spending. One powerful ally is Open The Books. The watchdog organization’s mission statement is “Every Dime. Online. In Real Time.” was co-founded in 2011 (and now chaired) by former U.S. Senator Dr. Tom Coburn following the blueprint of his immensely popular Wastebooks. The group combs public records to disclose spending at every level of government and develops reports to organize and interpret that data. In the effort to preserve the right of taxpayers to see where government is spending its money, Open The Books tracks federal expenditures and is expanding its database to include state and municipal spending.

What can you find? How about the fact that only 3,591 of 39,454 employees hired at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) were actually doctors; instead, the VA dramatically increased the staff and spending in the public relations department. Or, of the 21,233 federal employees who live in the state of Oklahoma (1 federal employee for every 188 people in the state), 1 in 10 receives a six-figure salary. Or, the convoluted government pension systems that allow some career bureaucrats to retire with grossly inflated pensions (one retired assistant firefighter training officer in Michigan now collects $307,516).

The data tools for the state of Oklahoma include state and federal spending, government employee salaries, and even detail the past several years of campaign contributions, state and local spending, and government employee salaries. In 2016, Oklahoma employed 216,139 government workers (state and school district employees), with 4,489 earning $100,000 or more (over double the average salary of Oklahomans). The highest spending on a single budget item occurred at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center when the state spent $637,981,507 on the facility in 2014.

Open The Books’ data tools serve as a complementary addition to OCPA’s data tools, including our education portal that breaks down spending in public education. This database details every facet of spending and where exactly your tax dollars are being spent on education. For example, even before this session’s education package, public schools received $9,724 per student for operating costs, or close to $250,000 per classroom of twenty-five students. Assuming teachers were paid only $45,000 (at that time), there was almost $200,000 per classroom spent on things other than educational costs.

Take a look at your own local school district on the OCPA website. You might be surprised at the inefficiency you find. Now more than ever, we need transparency and accountability in our state’s government.