Magnifying glass money
Patrick Ishmael

Last year, a bill requiring cities to submit their spending records—or “checkbooks”—to the state was filed in the House, and this year the measure passed the lower chamber in a bipartisan vote. Yesterday it was heard in committee in the Senate.

But unfortunately, the bill appears to be facing headwinds in the Senate, where there’s talk of making the reform “voluntary.” That would be a mistake based on a host of misconceptions propagated by House debate of the bill and reinforced by a host of special interests who don’t want these checkbooks public.

First, the idea that “small cities” are going to be unable to produce these records flies directly in the face of the truth. Responses to our Sunshine requests show pretty clearly that despite assertions to the contrary, city size has basically nothing to do with whether a city could produce spending records, or even produce them for free. The following cities—all with fewer than 300 residents—are just a handful of the cities that produced their spending records at no cost:

  • Centertown, population 278
  • Filmore, population 185
  • Lohman, population 163, and
  • St. Thomas, population 263

What was doubly confusing about the House debate and subsequent pushback in the Senate was the claim that Springfield, of all places, would have trouble complying with the law. In fact, we asked Springfield (population 167,000) for their records two years ago, and the city provided them to us—free of charge. Springfield’s much smaller neighbor, Strafford (population 2,400), also provided their checkbook for free.

Meanwhile, their neighbor Battlefield (population 5,500) wanted $35,000. Why should Battlefield be able to price the public out of transparency? Why should any city be able to do that?

This isn’t about city size. It’s about city culture. And if someone tells you otherwise, they’re selling you bunk.

Second, making participation in the state’s checkbook database voluntary for cities would incentivize cities like Battlefield to keep their spending secret. If a city like Battlefield wants to charge the public tens of thousands of dollars to see how it’s spending tax dollars, why would it submit any information to the state voluntarily? Perversely, the city checkbooks that likely need the most oversight will continue to be the least likely to receive it. That's unacceptable

Lastly, the notion that requiring cities to disclose their spending to state would somehow violate Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, which speaks to unfunded mandates, is ludicrous.  Nothing in the text, case law or spirit of the law of the Hancock Amendment suggests it would prevent the public from seeing how cities spend money. What’s more, cities already have to submit financial reports regularly to the state that include how much they’re spending. And a city can’t submit expenditure totals without knowing their expenditures.

These “checkbook” records exist. Cities shouldn’t get to hide them.

 

 

About the Author

Patrick Ishmael
Director of Government Accountability

Patrick Ishmael is the director of government accountability at the Show-Me Institute.