Taxpayer Dollars

By Richard Eckstrom
S.C. Comptroller

Entities that spend taxpayer dollars should show taxpayers how that money is used. That’s true for government entities — like your local town, county and school district — and for nonprofit groups that accept government grants.
Transparency shows respect for the public, which in turn encourages the trust of the citizens. And when that happens, we all win.
Unfortunately, the cause of government transparency suffered a setback a few weeks ago.
According to media reports, the S.C. Association of School Administrators had been refusing requests to open its meetings — and its books — to the public. SCASA advocates on behalf of school district administrators. Many of its activities are political, and its Website announces it has a “full time lobbying team” at the State House.
Here’s the problem: the S.C. Association of School Administrators is funded in large part by public dollars. You see, in most instances, the membership dues of the superintendents, assistant superintendents and principals belonging to SCASA are paid with taxpayer dollars by their school districts.
Of course, we can’t tell how much of SCASA’s budget comes from the pockets of taxpayers, because it isn’t willing to open its books. But a cursory glance at school districts’ check registers — which are required by law to be posted on the Web — shows it’s not uncommon for districts to make payments of $10,000 or more to SCASA for membership dues and other costs.
To many of us, the fact that the group supports itself on public funds to this extent means it should operate in accordance with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Meetings should be open to the public, and taxpayers ought to be able to look at its spending records.
But as we know, SCASA has resisted calls to operate openly. So, in 2009, a Lowcountry radio personality submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking to look at the group’s records. When he was denied, he hired lawyers and took the matter to court.
A few weeks ago, the judge in the case issued a surprising ruling. He said that SCASA, even though funded with public dollars, doesn’t have to be open in its business, and that requiring it to disclose information on its activities would violate the First Amendment. “The First Amendment encompasses the right not to speak publicly,” the judge wrote, according to a media report.
That’s a shame. The ruling — as well as SCASA’s continued refusal to reveal how it is spending public dollars — threatens to deal a serious blow to the cause of open government in South Carolina. Too many public entities already defy the intent of open-records laws, and I worry that this ruling might embolden even more of them to do the same.
This disappointing episode undermines a current trend in government. The “people’s business” was becoming more open. Other public bodies — whether government agencies or groups that feed off public funding — have been increasingly heeding the public’s calls for open disclosure. In fact, a bill pending in the State Legislature would require any organization receiving a grant from a municipal or county government to provide regular reports on how the money is spent. That’s the very least they can do with any money that’s been taken from our paychecks.
Meanwhile, the public school administrators making up SCASA’s membership are presented a unique opportunity to take an important stand. They should insist that as long as their group feeds at the public trough — and as long as SCASA’s activities and spending are intended to sway public policy — its meetings should be open and its spending details made conveniently available to the public.
Doing so would set the right example for other entities that receive public funding, and it would send a message that these public servants have nothing to hide.
Failure to do so would be a disservice to their constituents, and it would send a message that hard-working people don’t have the right to see how their tax dollars are being spent. Open-records laws are one of the most important protections citizens have for ensuring honest and accountable government.
Richard Eckstrom, a CPA, is the state’s Comptroller.

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