A legislative proposal was introduced Tuesday to require the State of Nebraska to make available digital copies of contracts searchable by vendor, dollar amount and agency, board, commission or department.
The Taxpayer Transparency Act was introduced by state Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue. If passed, the bill would require the state to begin posting “a copy of each contract or subcontract that is a basis for an expenditure of state funds” to a website beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
The tool would help investigative journalists, watchdog groups, business owners and everyday Nebraska residents research contracts of interest to them, Crawford said. Doing so would add sunlight to the process.
Even if only a few people use the website, she said those drafting contracts may pay extra attention to the process.
“One of the values of transparency is it just adds to extra vigilance and attention,” Crawford said. “The idea is to make it simple enough to use that it could be used by a wide variety of people.”
Legislative Bill 429 would build upon the NebraskaSpending.gov website run by the State Treasurer’s Office as well as digital contracts available from the Department of Administrative Services website. Currently, residents have to visit one website to find a list of contracts and another to find a copy of it, with no easy-to-use search function covering all state contracts.
The goal of the proposal, Crawford said, is to make sure they are provided in a centralized place that is easy to search. The website would be comprehensive, while the current posting of contracts may not be complete.
“This is a tool to make sure that we really are making public information accessible and usable,” she said. “It will be up to citizens and journalists and lawmakers to use that information well to make sure that we are spending our money well and that we are entering into reasonable contracts and we are holding our government officials and contractors accountable.”
Because many contracts are already digital, Crawford said she does not expect the proposal to have a large cost nor does she expect much opposition once the bill reaches a public hearing.
“The main concern that some people will raise is whether or not it does ask the agencies to do extra work and whether or not that creates cost,” Crawford said. “When we go into the hearing, we’ll have a good estimate of what that price tag will be.”
Crawford said the proposal doesn’t set a requirement for how quickly the contracts would be posted, because other state statutes already require their timely disclosure. She said the website disclosure would build upon other rules that require the state to be transparent with spending decisions.
The proposal is co-sponsored by state Sens. Bill Avery of Lincoln and Heath Mello of Omaha, said Kaitlin Reece, a legislative aide in Crawford’s office. Mello is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
“This bill is a major step toward greater transparency in the operation of state government,” Avery said in a press release.
“With more than $2 billion being spent on state contracts annually, Nebraskans need to be able to check for themselves that their tax dollars are being spent wisely,” Mello said in a press release.
State Treasurer Don Stenberg, who Crawford praised for improving the state’s transparency score as calculated by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, also endorsed the proposal in a press release from Crawford’s office.
“Obtaining copies of state contracts today is a difficult, bureaucratic process for our citizens,” Stenberg said in a press release. “We have the technology to make these contracts easily accessible online so that Nebraska taxpayers can easily see exactly how their tax dollars are being spent. This legislation will make sure that will happen.”