Georgia's new open budget law has low compliance

ATLANTA — About half the cities, counties and school districts have yet to comply with a state law designed to make it easier for taxpayers to see how their money is being spent.


The law requires local governments with budgets over $1 million to submit electronic copies of their tax and expenditure data to a division of the University of Georgia called the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. The institute offers advice and information to officials in all levels of government.

The governments have until the end of this month to comply. So far, 169 of 180 school districts, 76 of 159 counties and 117 of 535 cities have submitted materials.

Some of those not complying may be exempt because their budgets are below the threshold.

But even those who have supplied data have different ideas of what’s required. The Augusta-Richmond County consolidated government sent all 115 pages of its $756 million budget document, while that county’s school district supplied just one page for its $236 million spending blueprint.

The Chatham County Commission submitted 718 pages of detail.

What information is available isn’t easy to find. Google searches for “Georgia cities budgets” and “Georgia counties budgets” don’t immediately bring it up, but they do in the search function on the UGA home page if taxpayers remember the university has the documents.

The Vinson Institute doesn’t track how many people actually visit the site or view the budget documents.

“Unless you know to go look for the Revenue and Expenditure Report, then the general public will not know to go look for that,” said Angela Palm, director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Board Association.

Palm said local education officials consider the law unnecessary because essentially the same data already goes to the state departments of revenue, education and audits. Some is also collected by the Office of Student Achievement.

Legislators who suspected local politicians were being secretive and wasteful enacted the latest law to expose the financial numbers so their citizens could spot questionable expenditures.

A few local governments post the information on their own websites, and all are required to make it available to the public upon request, but lawmakers wanted to create a central place, easy to find, where citizens of one community could make comparisons with similar governments.

In the meantime, the governments have a race against the clock to comply with what’s already on the books. And their taxpayers still may not have a good understanding of how their money is spent.