Taxpayers deserve greater transparency in state contracting — not less

St. Louis Post-Dispatch — by: Nicole Galloway, State Auditor

With more than $27 billion in taxpayer dollars going through its coffers each year, state government is one of Missouri’s biggest businesses. The state awards thousands of contracts to private businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide services intended to better the lives of 6.1 million Missourians.

We can all agree that openness in meetings, records and communications are essential for good government in Missouri. It’s time to bring a greater — and much-needed — level of openness to the state contract process as well, in order to avoid corruption and impropriety.

The Legislature can move toward greater transparency in how taxpayer dollars are spent by passing Senate Bill 1060, sponsored by Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. This bill, known as the “Transparency in Government Contracting Act,” would require those entering into state contracts of $5,000 or more to disclose significant contributions they made to certain tax-exempt political organizations, often referred to as “dark money” groups.

Unlike individual political candidates, dark money groups — which cover the political spectrum — don’t need to disclose their donors. Not only can donors to dark money groups remain anonymous, they also can give unlimited amounts to those organizations — funding often then used to run ads that support some candidates and attack others.

This veil of secrecy means these groups can act in the shadows, without supporters being identified. In Missouri, it also means we don’t know if state contracts — funded by your taxpayer dollars — are going to contributors donating to help the very politicians responsible for awarding the contracts.

For decades, a process has been in place to give the greatest benefit to taxpayers by awarding state contracts fairly and openly. Much like the merit system for state employment, the contract process spelled out in state law maintains consistent standards and helps guard against favoritism and the rewarding of political allies and donors.

Senate Bill 1060, which is in committee and has not yet had a hearing, would ensure that Missourians could know when and if their taxpayer dollars are being used in contracts awarded to dark money contributors. That is a move in the right direction to balance the playing field for taxpayers.

Unfortunately, there is the potential for Missouri to move in the wrong direction when it comes to transparency in spending your taxpayer dollars. Some state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would give an unelected member of the governor’s Cabinet, the commissioner of administration, the authority to award multimillion-dollar, no-bid contracts to purchase vaguely defined “innovative technology” for the state.

One current proposal would even permit closing certain innovative technology proposals to public scrutiny. Simply put, with these types of bills, the Legislature is developing a process for a company and the government to hide information from taxpayers.

In addition to being a certified public accountant, I’m also a certified fraud examiner — but it certainly doesn’t take those qualifications to see that this type of lack of accountability throws the door open for potential graft and corruption. Contract safeguards would be upended to give a politically appointed bureaucrat the power to dole out millions of dollars in taxpayer money through no-bid contracts — and quite possibly to dark money donors.

Instead of responsible stewardship of tax dollars, Missourians would be getting a government that is putting politics back in the process. We should always look for ways to modernize government and use technology in an efficient and effective way, but it would be a disservice to taxpayers to remove fairness and openness in order to promote politics.

The Missouri Legislature ends its session on May 18. In the remaining weeks, members have clear choices before them: passing Senate Bill 1060 to help protect taxpayers by exposing secret contributions, and rejecting bills that promote secrecy in government contracting.

Budgets are about priorities. We need our elected officials to make certain every tax dollar is spent wisely and in a way that is transparent and open. Inserting politics and doling out earmarks take us exactly the wrong way.