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Make economic assistance data accessible

Published March 19. 2013 4:00AM

The Connecticut Comptroller's Office usually gets little attention. The comptroller, an elected position, is the state's fiscal guardian. With 256 employees and a $24.1 million budget, the office has the responsibility for providing accounting and financial services to state government. It administers employee and retiree benefits and prepares Connecticut's financial reports.

But the steps taken by Comptroller Kevin J. Lembo to make it easier for citizens to find out how Connecticut spends taxpayer dollars is deserving of attention. And his latest effort to provide greater transparency concerning the hundreds of millions of dollars Connecticut is investing in economic assistance programs deserves legislative support.

Since his election in 2010, Mr. Lembo has made good on his campaign promise to improve government accountability. The information in this editorial about the size of his staff and how much it spends is displayed prominently on the Comptroller's Office website, just click "about us." Good luck in finding such information as easily when visiting other state agency websites.

Also found on the comptroller's website, because of Mr. Lembo's efforts, is a link to "Open Connecticut." The site provides a searchable data base that pulls together financial information - the budget, salary data, what vendors are paid, as well as myriad financial reports - previously available, but scattered across state agencies and difficult to access.

"It's your money. You have a right to know," is the to-the-point statement found on the site.

In a recent interview, Mr. Lembo, a Democrat, gave due credit to the fiscal conservative watchdog group Yankee Institute for Public Policy, for its development of www.ctsunlight.org, a website that allows visitors to search for information on state payrolls, expenses and pensions.

"They shouldn't have to do it, at their expense, the state needed to step up," said Mr. Lembo. The goal of the state's Open Connecticut website will be to provide more information in a timelier fashion, he said.

For full transparency Mr. Lembo knows citizens must also be able to access an online database for all state tax credit and economic assistance programs. Connecticut is making substantial investments of taxpayer money in private, for-profit businesses in the forms of grants, loans and tax breaks. But where is the money going and how effective is it utilized? Currently, those are questions difficult to answer.

The comptroller is pushing for legislation that would make it easy to find online what businesses are receiving assistance, the nature of that assistance, its value, its intended purpose, the anticipated economic results and an analysis of actual results.

The fact that the proposal - outlined in House Bill 6566 "An Act Concerning Transparency in Economic Assistance Programs" - has support from such politically disparate organizations as the human services advocacy group Connecticut Voice for Children and the parsimonious Yankee Institute, shows that it would serve the ideal of good governance, not any ideology.

Also in support is the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information (CCFOI), a group that advocates for open government.

"Citizens have every right to expect a clear and strict accounting of whether their investments result in the community benefits intended. They deserve the opportunity to decide whether the deals entered into on their behalf are prudent, negotiated at arms length and carefully monitored," said Claude Albert, legislative chairman of the CCFOI, when testifying in favor of the bill. "What argument could there be for not providing this kind of access, unless their government decides that citizens are better off left in the dark."

Some have raised concerns about the cost of collecting, organizing and electronically providing this information. And business advocates want assurances about protection of proprietary information. But we are confident any expense would be more than offset by the savings that will result from improved policy decisions based on information about which incentive programs and tax credits work and which do not.

As for proprietary fears, those businesses benefitting from government help must accept a higher degree of scrutiny.

Pass the bill into law.

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