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Over the last dozen or so years, and largely in lockstep with the increased popularity of the internet, there has been a welcome surge in government transparency. What might have taken days for interested citizens to gather in the past can now be found online in a matter of seconds.
Kentucky is playing a leading role as this trend moves forward. The online portal that lets anyone check on state government purchases, for example, has been hailed as one of the nation’s best for the last three years by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit consumer-advocacy organization. In March, Kentucky’s website - www.opendoor.ky.gov - and Texas’ were the only two awarded A’s.
In recent weeks there has been a greater focus on extending that level of transparency and accountability to quasi-government agencies that were mostly created by local and state governments but largely operate on their own.
In November, the state auditor’s office released a report on the special taxing districts that run such things as our volunteer fire departments, libraries, airports, health departments and public utilities. This was the first official statewide census ever taken, and it found that there are more than 1,200 overall and their combined annual budgets total more than $2 billion.
The report pointed out that it can often be confusing for citizens to keep track of their work, in part because of the law itself; consider that the state alone has about 1,000 statutes tied to these districts. There will be a push to streamline that in the 2013 legislative session, so that the good work they do is more accessible.
While the auditor’s office was conducting its study, the General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee was doing one of its own on a group that shares some of the same broad characteristics as special districts but with a different focus.
There are at least 571 public boards and commissions, according to the committee’s report, which was adopted last week, and they cover everything from the governing bodies at our colleges and universities to professional organizations that enforce training and licensing requirements. Others are used to fill judicial vacancies, boost tourism, build major transportation projects, monitor some aspect of our health and oversee agricultural development.
Nearly 400 of these boards and commissions are at least partially appointed by the governor, which has traditionally been one of that office’s major responsibilities. In fact, until a major re-organization began in the 1930s, filling these seats was essentially the governor’s sole role, since they carried out most of state government’s work.
As with special districts, the Program Review Committee found that there is no central location for information on the state’s boards and commissions and there is often no formal process for them to be taken off the books once their mission is complete. A comparison with 20 other states also showed that only one other had more boards and commissions than Kentucky, and that some states have had success saving money by consolidating those with similar functions.
Deciding how we can improve the public’s access to information about the state’s special districts and boards and commissions will be one of the main topics discussed during the upcoming legislative session. Fortunately, the light shed by these two new studies will help our task immensely.
For now, as we count down the final days to Christmas and the new year, I hope you and your family have been enjoying all the season has to offer. If you have any questions or comments about this issue or any other affecting the state, please let me know. I hope to hear from you soon.
Rick Rand, D-Bedford, represents the 47th House District in the Kentucky General Assembly. He may be reached by writing to Room 367, Capitol Annex, 702 Capitol Avenue, Frankfort, KY 40601, or leave a message at (800) 372-7181 – TTY (800) 896-0305.