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Transparency 101

MPI shares voters’ concerns about government transparency, and whether or not those we entrust with our tax dollars will respect the people’s constitutional right to know how their money is being spent. We’re helping lay the groundwork for the state to create a budget transparency website that would place all state and local revenue and expenditure information online in a fully searchable format.

Several states and even the federal government have already taken significant steps in this direction.  In 2006, the federal government enacted a law that provides a road map for states on how to allow citizens to find out about government spending. The law was co-sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and was passed unanimously by Congress. The new law creates a free searchable website that allows citizens to track the recipients of all federal funds.  In addition, eighteen states have passed legislation to create a search capability for their spending.  They all have different levels of capabilities and information, but here are some good examples:

Kansas: www.kansas.gov/kanview/
Missouri: www.mapyourtaxes.mo.gov
Arizona: www.aztreasury.gov/distributions.html
Kentucky: www.sos.ky.gov
Nebraska: www.nebraskaspending.com
 

The state of Montana has refused to create a spending portal during the past two legislative sessions, so MPI has started the process on our own.  We’ve created the site www.opengovmt.org, which has detailed district-by-district school revenue and spending data, as well state employee pay data.

Unfortunately, not only has the state refused to tell you where your money is being spent, but they’ve also put up roadblocks to us telling you.  They’ve refused to tell us, for example, how much each state employee is paid.  That’s pretty simple, and since they won’t provide that data we’re suing them for it.

The Center for Fiscal Accountability has created a rundown of current state transparency portals throughout the country.  Last updated in January 2010, it clearly shows what’s possible and what should be done.

In addition to state transparency portals, cities, counties, and school boards are also making their finances more open and accountable to taxpayers.  Here’s a partial list of local government sites:

Milwaukee County, WI: http://mcap.milwaukeecounty.org/MAP/Portal/ 
Douglas County Schools, CO: www.dcsdk12.org
Jefferson County Schools, CO: www.jeffcopublicschools.org/financial_transparency/reports.php

The majority of these states are getting this information to the taxpayers with little or no fiscal impact, i.e. this is a cheap and easy thing to do, and then been passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Similar bipartisan proposals are long overdue here in Montana.  Go to our BigSkySearch.info to see more great examples and answers to your questions (like how much does it cost?).

In addition to state-sponsored sites, several free market, accountable government organizations like MPI have put up web sites of their own that detail certain areas of state spending.  A couple notable ones are:

 

MPI has launched a school spending site of our own at www.SchoolsOpenMT.org.  This site is the most user friendly and comprehensive source of district by district school revenue and spending information available.  It’s nonjudgmental and easy to use, even allowing comparisons of up to five districts across a variety of categories.

Transparency isn’t expensive, either.  A study by the Mercatus Center found that costs are almost always overestimated and generally low.  We built www.SchoolsOpenMT.org for less than $20,000 and six months work.  Imagine what the state could do if it wanted to.

For more information about state spending transparency take a look at our Policy Note:

And, there’s a lot more at our transparency information site: BigSkySearch.info.

And finally, we’ll be evaluating bills that deal with transparency as they are introduced.  The idea isn’t to tell people whether or not to vote for them.  We want you to know what they say and whether they meet MPI’s goals for a more transparency and accountable government.

Let the Death Tax Die

By MPI CEO Carl Graham and Dick Patten

 

Six family-owned companies from across the state were just awarded the 2009 Montana Family Business Awards. Honored for their commitment to “service, family values and diversification to satisfy the needs of their markets, often in challenging situations,” the owners of these family businesses have much to celebrate.

Why? They, along with the tens of thousands of other Montana family business owners and farmers, have sacrificed much to build a successful enterprise that can reinvest in new jobs and expanded opportunities in the community.

Unfortunately, in the end, all their hard work might be for naught if their businesses have to be sold to pay estate taxes.

The federal government requires the payment of estate taxes within nine months after the business owner’s death, demanding a large percentage of the combined value of all family and business assets, including the house, car, savings accounts, retirement accounts, business equipment, inventory, buildings, land and more.

Family business owners often have most of what they own tied up in buildings, equipment, inventory and other “hard assets,” so their families are forced to sell off large portions of the business, if not the entire company, to satisfy the IRS.

It’s not as if these people haven’t paid their taxes every year. They have, and probably more than their fair share. But they have to make one final payment at death to be free from Uncle Sam, at least until the next generation of the family – if they’re able to keep the business alive – passes on.

Contrary to popular myth, the estate tax rarely impacts the super rich. Rather, a disproportionate amount of estate tax filers come from the ranks of family business owners and family farmers.

According to the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, between 1995-2005, estate taxes were paid by more than 37,000 “closely-held businesses,” 24,000 family farms, 50,000 limited-partnerships and nearly 28,000 “other” non-corporate businesses, such as sole proprietorships.

Currently, such business owners face an estate tax rate of 45 percent, with the first $3.5 million exempt. This is likely to change later this year, when Congress revisits the tax again in an effort to prevent the rate from going to zero next year and jumping to 55 percent in 2011, which would happen under current law.

Some in Congress want to increase the tax and lower the exemption, while others want to keep the status quo. Both sides justify their positions out of concern over losing federal revenues at a time when Washington needs every tax dollar available.

A report for the American Family Business Foundation by economist Stephen Entin, a former Treasury official, should give them pause. According to Entin, if revenues are their primary concern, the best thing Congress could do is eliminate the tax, not raise it.

That’s because a lower tax rate – indeed a tax rate of zero – would stimulate investment in family owned businesses and the creation of new jobs, both of which would generate increased federal, state and local tax revenues. As much as $23.3 billion annually, Entin estimates.

But there’s another – and perhaps more important – reason to repeal the estate tax: jobs.

Former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin has estimated that as many as 1.5 million new jobs could be added to the economy nationwide simply by repealing the federal estate tax.

The Montana Policy Institute has calculated that Montana would gain 5,952 of those 1.5 million jobs. That’s good news in a job market where Montana’s unemployment rate stands at 6.6 percent.

Repeal of the federal estate tax is certainly a more dependable and less costly way to stimulate the economy than other policies being considered by Washington.

A majority of Americans agree. According to a recent Opinion Research Corporation poll, Americans support repeal of the federal estate tax by a nearly two-to-one margin.

It should be a no-brainer. More family businesses and farms growing in size. More jobs. More tax revenues. Congress should repeal the unfair “death tax.” Doing so would not only be good for family business owners and farmers in Montana, but also good for the country.

 

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Carl Graham is president of the Montana Policy Institute. Dick Patten is president of the American Family Business Foundation.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact MPI President Carl Graham at 406.219.0508, or email info@montanapolicy.org.

The Montana Policy is an, independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research center based in Bozeman. It provides analysis and information to encourage individual freedom, personal responsibility, and market oriented policy solutions in Montana.

Montana Policy Institute

67 W Kagy Blvd, Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

406-219-0508

 

www.montanapolicy.org

 

 

Joint Letter Urges Action on Government Spending Transparency

Left/Right Groups Ask Leaders to Act

 

BOZEMAN (04.10.09) Forward Montana in Missoula and the Montana Policy Institute in Bozeman are asking the Governor and lawmakers to bring more openness to governmental expenditures.

The letter states that, while the groups disagree on many other issues, they believe in a strong and informed electorate and share a strong belief that taxpayers should be able to easily access clear and concise information on how their tax dollars are being spent.

Encl: Joint Letter Attached

The Montana Policy is an independent nonpartisan policy research center based in Bozeman. It provides analysis and information to encourage individual freedom, personal responsibility, and free markets in Montana.

 

For Information Contact: Carl Graham at 406-600-1139

 

Montana Policy Institute

67 W Kagy Blvd, Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

406-219-0508

info@montanapolicy.org

www.montanapolicy.org

 

 

MPI is a Montana tax exempt corporation operated exclusively for the public benefit. No substantial part of the activities of the Institute are used for the carrying on of propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation, promote any political campaign, or on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office

 

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Fiscal Accountability Press Release

Press Release

Lawmakers Asked to Target Stimulus Spending

With Montana on tap to receive around $600 million in federal stimulus dollars, a nonprofit Bozeman policy watchdog is asking lawmakers to pledge that one-time federal stimulus dollars will only be used on one-time spending projects.

“The danger,” according to Montana Policy Institute (MPI) president Carl Graham “is that these one-time stimulus dollars will come into the state budget and be used to create spending requirements that won’t end when the initial federal money has dried up.” He cited several potential examples, including hiring new full time employees, creating new subsidy or entitlement programs, or even permanent tax relief – something the fiscally conservative organization would normally applaud. If any of these things happen, according to Graham, future lawmakers will be put in a position of either having to raise taxes to support the new spending or making painful cuts to people and programs; something that MPI says is an unfair burden for current legislators to place on future generations.

MPI mailed the pledge, which can be found at www.montanapolicy.org, to lawmakers on February 10th. It notes that if this one-time money is spent wisely on one-time projects within the state it has the potential to address serious maintenance and infrastructure backlogs while injecting jobs and money into our economy. However, according to a letter accompanying the pledge, if the one-time dollars are spent in ways that create ongoing programs and obligations or in ways that don’t create jobs or increase productivity, it will just create hard decisions down the road without helping Montanans who are truly in need today. “That’s not fair to our citizens, to our children, or to our future lawmakers.” according to Graham.

MPI hopes to gain broad bipartisan support for the pledge and will publish results in early March.

 

 

The Montana Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research center based in Bozeman. To find out more visit us on the web at www.montanapolicy.org.

 

Legislators’ Forum to Discuss Transparency and Accountability

Press Release

The Montana Policy Institute, partnering with the CATO Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for Fiscal Accountability, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Property & Environment Research Center, will host a Legislator’s Government Accountability Forum at the Red Lion Colonial Inn, Helena, 8:30-4:30 on Tuesday, November 11th.

The Forum will provide a hands-on workshop of programs and expert panels on government transparency, fiscal discipline, and property and environmental rights and responsibilities. In addition, Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform, will provide the keynote lunch address.

All morning presentations and the lunch program are open to the public (and media). Policy experts will discuss budget and tax proposals that stress fiscal discipline and accountability; success stories in government transparency measures from other states; and property rights issues for maintaining Montana’s clean and healthful environment.

Afternoon events are closed-door sessions for state legislators and legislative staff. Hand’s-on panels will present nuts and bolts tools and resources to assist our lawmakers in crafting proposals that ensure our government remains transparent and accountable to taxpayers. These will include real world examples from other states’ actions that have resulted in concrete benefits to their citizens. Some of these include: Objectives-based budgeting models, tax reform measures, and government transparency web sites.

These “Google for government” web sites have allowed citizens in other states to track their tax dollars from the time they are collected to when they’re spent using key word searches and other user-friendly tools. Today’s technology allows this level of access to the peoples’ data, if only governments have the will to make it available. The Forum will provide concrete examples of just how easy and inexpensive it is.

Registration starts at 7:30 a.m. and events begin at 8:30. Registration is $25, and includes the morning presentations, lunch, and a keynote address by Grover Norquist. Register online at www.montanapolicy.org.

 

The Montana Policy Institute is dedicated to providing Montana leaders and citizens the information and resources they need to advocate for policies that are based on a respect for individual freedom, an expectation of individual responsibility, and a belief that government intervention should be the avenue of last rather than first resort. For more information visit us on the web at www.montanapolicy.org.

 

Montana Policy Institute Website Seeks Tips on Government Waste

October 3, 2008

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Bozeman, Montana–Citizens can now report government waste, fraud, and abuse at the new Montana Policy Institute website, www.montanapolicy.org.

The Montana Policy Institute, based in Bozeman, is a member-based 501c(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to making state and local governments more accountable to the people they serve.

All citizen tips will be researched by the MPI staff, which now includes an investigative journalist.

In addition to tracking government waste, fraud, and abuse, MPI is also advocating policies to promote the liberty, prosperity, and quality of life for all Montanans by increasing government transparency and accountability. These policies would result in significant tax and spending reform, as well as provide Montanans with the ability to see where their tax dollars go and what’s being done by their government in their name.

MPI’s tax reform proposals would stop the systematic ratcheting up of spending and the growing role of government spending in the state’s economy by placing reasonable limits on spending growth. It would also build reserves during strong economic times and draw on those reserves when the economy slows and revenues decline. Excess revenues would then be returned to taxpayers in the form of rebates or permanent tax relief. Studies show that Montanans would have had over $3 billion dollars returned to them over the past 15 years under a system like the one MPI is proposing.

MPI’s Montana Transparency Project would have the state place all state and local spending on a fully searchable, downloadable, web-enabled database. Citizens and legislators could see exactly where budgeted money is spent for every department, every county, locality and school board. Government entities could easily justify funding requests based on their open, transparent, and demonstrated budgetary requirements. Contractors could see who won bids and why. Citizens could see where their hard earned tax dollars end up.

And MPI’s Objectives Based Budgeting proposals would provide a means for legislators to objectively measure Agency and Department performance in light of mutually agreed upon goals, and then to allocate tax dollars according to citizens’ needs and agencies’ performance. This would reduce or eliminate duplicative and wasteful spending, and ensure that Montanans’ hard earned money is spent on priorities rather than legacies.

MPI is Montana’s premier resource for free market, individual liberty educational and informational products. Citizens can also join MPI and donate to these projects at the website, www.montanapolicy.org.

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Contact:

Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute: 406.600.1139

John Q. Murray, Investigative Reporter: 406.721.1129, johnqmurray@gmail.com

Montana Policy Institute, 1627 W. Main St #354, Bozeman, MT 59715