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Opinion

Olson: Public funds more important than tax dollars

Eric Olson
Eric Olson

It’s much better to think about government spending “public funds” rather than “tax dollars,” and certainly not “our tax dollars.”

Taxes directly paid by you and me to government fund a comparatively small amount of the workings of most governments. Your local public school district, which collects thousands or tens of thousands from local property owners to fund its operations, is a notable exception.

But it doesn’t matter. Whether you pay
$1 million a year in taxes or you pay nothing, we all have the same rights to monitor and opine on how government spends money. You don’t even have to be a member of the community served by a unit of government to have the right to look at their books.

That’s because money spent by government entities is supposed to be spent for public benefit, and therefore open to public inspection.

So after a government body collects your tax dollars, they become public funds, and it is the right of all members of the public to know what becomes of them – whether a person paid into the kitty or not.

It’s a critical tenet of open and honest government.

Granted, a wealthy person probably has more power to influence the political process that determines how public funds are spent. But the right to inspect government records, the right to attend public meetings and the right to vote are extended to all, regardless of how much they pay in taxes.

Consider the situation this week at Northern Illinois University. Many people were angry at the $600,000 settlement the university agreed to pay former President Doug Baker to leave and not return.

The payout to Baker might not include a penny contributed by you or me through tax payments. General state aid to the university has slipped considerably in recent years, and NIU has many sources of revenue, including student tuition.

NIU officials still were required to say how much Baker was paid because the university is a public institution, and it is spending public funds.

Of course, government spends public funds for many purposes, the benefits of which often are debated. Public money goes to build sports stadiums for teams with billionaire owners, to fund public radio and TV broadcasting that conservatives sometimes complain have a liberal bias, a nuclear arsenal that could annihilate every living thing on Earth, research studies that put shrimp on tiny treadmills and so on.

The way that government spends public funds reflects our values as a society. It is all of our right to know how our collective wealth is spent, what benefit is derived, and when there is waste or malfeasance, to speak out or vote accordingly.

All of us can do this, regardless of how much we contribute in tax dollars.

• Eric Olson is editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841, ext. 2257, email eolson@shawmedia.com, or follow him on Twitter @DC_Editor.

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