Archive for Thursday, February 10, 2005

Watching public dollars

February 10, 2005

A fundamental change has been taking place in how we deliver governmental services in the past quarter century, but it has accelerated in the past decade.

A number of public services that previously were delivered by traditional public agencies have been shifted both to pseudo-public boards, economic development councils, convention and visitors' bureaus, chambers of commerce and to private firms and not-for-profit organizations. One doesn't have to look far to find such services as economic development, tourism promotion, correctional services, solid waste management, foster care and adoption, for instance, being outsourced to organizations and companies who have no obligation under the law to open up their records to public scrutiny.

While we don't believe the intent of this shift of responsibility was to shield these services from public scrutiny, that is nonetheless what has happened.

The Kansas Press Association, in coordination with the Kansas Attorney General's Office, has initiated legislation in Senate Bill 80 and House Bill 2119 to bring accountability to all those who receive and spend public dollars to perform what have traditionally been regarded as public functions.

It has been the public policy of Kansas and certainly of the United States since the days of our founding to treat those who receive public tax dollars differently from those who provide private services. We've done that for a simple reason: those who are paying taxes to support state and local units of government have a right to know how their money is being spent, who is spending it and why.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of this more than two centuries ago. In 1781, he said: "Every government degenerates when trusted to rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe rulers."

Our legislation attempts to redefine "public agency" to include those private companies that derive at least 50 percent of their annual expenditures from taxes or fees collected by cities, counties, school districts, the state of Kansas or the federal government unless those entities already provide an accounting of their expenditures that could be accessible to the public.

This change to privatization of public services has shifted a huge responsibility to the private sector with no accompanying accountability. Public agencies are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act and the Kansas Open Meetings Act. Private companies doing public services are not.

We think that is wrong. Millions of public tax dollars go to these pseudo-public agencies each year. We think the people of Kansas have just as much a right to see how those tax dollars are spent as they do those spent for public safety, road maintenance, personnel and other functions.

Therefore, we strongly urge the Kansas Legislature to support changes that would bring more accountability to the spending of public dollars in Kansas. -- Doug Anstaet, Kansas Press Association Director.

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