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Illinois lets taxpayers follow the money

By Kay Bell ·
Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Posted: 12 pm ET

Would people be more accepting of taxes if they knew exactly where their money was spent?

Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka thinks so.

She's announced that when Illinois residents open their state income tax refund check envelopes in 2014, they will see a breakdown of state spending.

The insert will include information about the state's unpaid bill backlog and other tools to help taxpayers better follow the money, Topinka says.

The flier will feature a chart showing how the state's $35.2 billion budget is divided among various programs including education, health care and retirement funds for state workers. It will also detail the state's backlog of unpaid bills, which by the end of 2013 had mushroomed to an estimated $7.6 billion.

The spending-details mailer is Topinka's latest attempt at more financial transparency when it comes to state spending. In the fall she launched The Warehouse, an online database where Illinois residents can peruse local governmental financial information and records.

The website compiles reports, already available in paper format, that are filed with the state by about 5,200 Illinois towns, counties and taxing districts. In announcing the online access option, Topinka said it now should be easier for the public to view financial records and help detect problems.

Divergent taxpayer desires

But do we taxpayers really care about how the money is spent? We say we do, but similar efforts on the federal level haven't reduced complaints about taxes. The Obama administration's taxpayer receipt graphic on the White House website did little to convince his political opponents to support his proposed tax increases on upper-income earners.

It might be more useful on a state and local level. After all, former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill's famous saying that "all politics is local" certainly can be extended to the tax realm.

If taxpayers see exactly where their dollars go, they can determine whether their tax money is being spent to their liking.

But that creates another set of problems. While I might be quite fine with handing over my tax money for improved roads, my neighbors might want more of their dollars to go to schools.

Both projects are important. But each taxpayer brings a specific bias to government spending. And some, or so they say, would be just fine with no tax money spent on any public projects.

I suspect that Topinka's openness will open up a whole new can of tax worms. But I applaud her for being a public employee who at least wants to get the public involved in the government process.

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Veteran contributing editor Kay Bell is the author of the book "The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes" and co-author of the e-book "Future Millionaires' Guidebook."

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January 01, 2014 at 11:45 am

Eons ago when we in Washington State allowed the lottery in, it was with the proviso that the money would be used to fund schools & only schools. By our corrupt legislators' slight of hand the money went into the general fund & spent as they choose. Now they continuously whine we need more money for schools. In Washington states case, these legislative weasels need to be watched & monitored for every dime of tax dollars.

January 01, 2014 at 8:37 am

As someone who lives in Illinois, it's imperative for all taxpayers be aware of the mis-spending of our politicians. Our state's inability to achieve a positive credit rating starts and ends with those in Springfield and Chicago. . .and all their family and friends who have benefitted from becoming employed with "made-up" jobs.

January 01, 2014 at 6:53 am

No IRS would be a good start.