Just a few years ago, learning details of state spending in West Virginia was a chore, if it could be done at all. If a taxpayer wanted to find out how much had been paid to a particular vendor, for example, he could make telephone calls, write letters, maybe even travel to Charleston to search for the records himself - with no guarantee he would obtain the information.
All that has changed.
A year ago, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group graded states on transparency in handling taxpayers' money. Specifically, the group checked into how easily those wishing to obtain information could do so via the Internet.
Back then, West Virginia received an "F" grade for online disclosure. But earlier this month, the PIRG evaluated states again. This time, our state was graded "A-minus."
That is quite an improvement, due to the efforts of several state officials.
Auditor Glen Gainer earns the most credit. His office has developed a website that provides a wealth of information on precisely where taxpayers' dollars go. For example, a state employee's name can be used to determine his compensation. A company's name can be entered to find out how much it was paid. The state budget can be examined in detail or by putting disbursements for specific purposes under the microscope. The auditor's site is at www.transparencywv.org.
Gainer and others involved in the change are doing West Virginians an enormous service - one some in government no doubt wish had not been provided.
Knowledge really is power, and those who don't know where their government's money is coming from and how it is spent have little ability to influence budget-related matters. That's the way some in government at all levels like it. Secrecy can allow them to waste money to their heart's content, and sometimes to reward political allies without taxpayers knowing about it.
What Gainer and his staff have accomplished did not come easily. Spend a few minutes perusing the transparency site if you doubt that. Tons of information from many sources had to be gathered electronically, then updated regularly, to make it all happen.
It was worth the work. West Virginians will benefit from it for decades to come.