New Jersey Republicans are pushing for the creation of a Web site designed to educate residents on how the state spends taxpayer money, a move they say will open the door to greater transparency in the budget process.
Sponsored by Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris and Passaic, the Transparency in Government Act aims to gather information such as revenues, expenditures, and outstanding debt levels and present them within a user-friendly, searchable Web site.
Pennacchio held a press briefing yesterday on the initiative. Pooling budget data together in a more accessible format would help residents better understand the nuts and bolts of New Jersey's budget, he said.
Currently, the state Treasury Web site offers the Budget in Brief, the Citizens' Guide to the Budget, and the state's annual debt report, among other fiscal information. According to Pennacchio, those resources fail to attract interest from taxpayers.
"It's like reading the telephone book," the senator said in a telephone interview. "I'm not reinventing the wheel here. We have other states that have already done it."
In April, Kansas' Department of Administration launched KanView at www.kansas.gov/kanview in an effort to bring greater transparency to the state's budget. KanView allows anyone to search state revenues and expenditures, offers highlights of the $21.1 billion fiscal 2009 budget, and outstanding debt information. The site receives 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a month, according to Secretary of Administration Duane Goossen.
For New Jersey GOP members, the goal is greater public access to a cumbersome budget process. Last month, Gov. Jon Corzine announced that the state faces a $1.2 billion deficit in the $32 billion fiscal 2009 budget, which began July 1, with that shortfall expected to grow to $5 billion next year.
"The bottom line is transparency," Pennacchio said. "In order to have good government, we have to know where the money is and we have to be able to see that quickly and expeditiously and in the most friendly manner as we possibly can."
Treasury spokesman Tom Vincz said the state over the past two years has strived to offer budget details in readable documents.
"Everyone has a different definition of what's user friendly, and we have made significant progress in the area of presentation and transparency, and that progress will continue," Vincz said.
The bill currently sits in the Senate State Government Committee, which meets again on Thursday. The initiative is currently not on the list of measures to be addressed.
Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Middlesex, is reviewing the bill but has yet to decide whether to move it through the committee, according to a spokesman for the Senate Democrats, Jason Butkowski. Meanwhile, Pennacchio is hoping for bipartisan support.
At the same time, New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan, nonprofit fiscal think tank, yesterday released a report calling for officials to quantify tax breaks and tax incentive programs, analysis that more than 40 other states include in their budgets, according to NJPP president Jon Shure.
"You can look at the state budget and you can find out how much money it used to pay people or buy things or fund a program, but you can't find out how much money it simply didn't take in for any number of reasons because of tax preferences, tax exemptions, abatements, credits, or whatever," Shure said.
"So we feel that you need that whole picture in order for everybody who's involved in the budget process to participate with full information so we can set our priorities in New Jersey," he added. "More than 40 states do this, there's no reason for New Jersey not to be among them."
In response to the NJPP report, Vincz said such analysis is helpful, yet the state lacks the appropriate staffing.