Branstad and Public Transparency
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
January 5, 2011, p. A7

Governor-elect Terry Branstad thinks transparency in government is a good idea.

As a general proposition, most agree. Indeed, to borrow from the bumper sticker: "It's not just a good idea; it's the law."

The difficulties come, not from the generalization, but from the specific applications and exceptions. Moreover, many public officials are unaware of their obligations.

It's called the Freedom of "Information" Act. However, as communications scholars remind us, there are dramatic differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. Without raw data nothing more is possible. Wisdom may be too much to hope for, let alone legislate. But it's knowledge that we need.

Few citizens rummage through the yellowing paper records in all of Iowa's 99 county courthouses. We depend on the media to tell us what our public officials are up to -- from Congress in Washington, to agencies in Des Moines, to the local school board.

Too often, public records, even with the media's reporting, provide us little more than data.

Do Iowans really want government transparency, a "government in the sunshine"? If so, we need to follow the advice "Deep Throat" gave Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post's Watergate break-in reporters: "Follow the money."

Much of what governments do is transfer taxpayers' money to the bottom line of for-profit corporations. Indeed, my research indicates the payback on large campaign contributions can run 1,000-to-one, or more. In Washington that means, "Give a million, get a billion." What's the ratio in Des Moines?

Paybacks can take the form of government contracts, price supports, direct subsidies and earmarks, and fraudulently named "jobs" and "economic development" programs. One of the most invisible and invidious forms of payback are "tax breaks."

There are serious issues of political ideology, public policy and finance when officials hand over taxes to for-profit corporations. One would hope those who think "socialism" is a swear word, and insist a deregulated marketplace solves all social ills, would oppose such giveaways. One would hope in vain.

So let's put those issues aside, recognize the corruption will continue, and address what improvements might help.

First, recognize that $100,000 not paid in taxes has the same private benefit and public cost as a $100,000 corporate subsidy.

Second, without cutting a single dollar from the taxpayers' largess put all the money on the table. Start with the worst problem: the virtually invisible and untraceable tax breaks.

Third, identify those that exist, however deeply buried in the Iowa tax code, and repeal them.

Fourth, make the money available, to the same recipient in the same amount, but as an identifiable appropriation for a named corporation or individual.

Fifth, require reports, and encourage media presentation of them, that associate those appropriations with the legislators who voted for them, and how much those legislators received in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses from the recipient of the appropriation.

That's how you turn data and information into knowledge.

It remains to be seen if that's what Branstad means by "transparency."

Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law and maintains and