Op-Ed: It is time for Connecticut taxpayers to learn what they are paying for

For the common voter, election decisions are becoming increasingly difficult.

Confused voters are harassed with flyers by shadow organizations. The photos and claims were more appropriate for supermarket tabloids. My apartment lobby was littered with unread campaign material thrown in disgust.

Some folks care passionately about politics, however. The “outside” campaign money increased approximately 300 percent this past election.

Op-ed submit bugThose that “invest” in politics – other than taxpayers – do so with an expectation of a return: influence, jobs for constituents, preference for a certain industry, or the other benefits government can dispense. They are happy when money is spent in the manner they desire. But what about the electorate? How do they know they are getting what they are paying taxes for?

It is time for the real investors – taxpayers – to know if they are getting what they paid for.

Across the nation, a nonpartisan collection of citizen groups, philanthropy and advocacy organizations are creatively looking for the truth about taxpayer investments.  They want to know whether government is spending money prudently.

You see, government is the one world where the duty to address an issue is fulfilled once it has been funded.  For example, “We increased education spending by 25 percent last year.” Okay, but what did you do with that money and what were the results?

The goals of government are lofty and resist tools of evaluation. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are difficult to quantify, but easy to manipulate. “Results” can be prone to marketing.  How do we determine if the money paid to government by taxpayers was spent in the most effective manner?

Taxpayer advocacy is increasingly about data and money. If you want to invest taxpayer money, let me know where it went and what happened. What did I get for my money?

Taxpayers are the shareholders of government and they are learning how to demand a return as well.

The most recent recession increased awareness that government revenues have peaks and valleys. Aligning government operating expenses with revenues is crucial if we are to maintain the services we expect.

In Connecticut, we have an operating structure that is challenged to avoid deficits. We constantly tweak, but structural change is needed.  Voters must demand better results for the money they pay. This means taxpayers should insist that government operate in a more fiscally sustainable and transparent manner. How we spend is more important than how much.

I see three national trends emerging to help taxpayers advocate:

Social Financing:  This field promotes investments in people – that’s the social part – to avoid the cost of a variety of government programs. The financing part is demonstrating the fiscal impact that results when people live better lives. Investments that strengthen people avoid later costs associated with special education, unemployment, drug abuse and prison — and generate tax revenues. This is the pay-for-success concept under attack from those that don’t like a possible private investor component. Who really gets paid in pay-for-success are taxpayers.

Appropriation Advocacy:  The most aggressive example of this is Proposition 47 in California. A voter referendum sought criminal justice sentencing reform to generate savings that would be spent for school safety and education. This referendum passed overwhelmingly. After 10 years of resistance from government, taxpayers took over: In essence, stop spending on that — and spend on this.

Sustainability Analysis:  There is a new language applicable to government finance and the darling word is “Sustainability.” This is merely applying the private sector concept of breaking even or creating a surplus. The gold standard in this world is the report from The State Budget Crisis Task Force.

The results of these efforts are many. For example, corporate tax breaks are now evaluated for return on investment. In another example, recidivism reductions have become extraordinary — in some states — and one reason is that the pay-for-success conversation has relentlessly crafted a financial message that government cannot ignore. It may resist transactions, but cannot ignore the message.

The private sector in its many forms – again, taxpayers – are demanding that government critically evaluate where it invests money. This means tell us how much was spent, on what and, by the way, what were the results?  The variety of open data initiatives in Connecticut now makes this level of advocacy more possible. The hard and important work can now start.

If we can spend our limited resources in areas that generate a better financial return for taxpayers, we should do so.

Government works for taxpayers — and they want to see a return on their investment.

Brian O’Shaughnessy of New Haven is a principal in the firm Community Impact Strategies Ltd.  

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