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Ryutaro Nonomura, then an independent member of the Hyogo prefectural assembly, attracted worldwide attention in July when his rant at a news conference was uploaded to YouTube. He hysterically wept and pounded on the table while answering questions about his suspicious use of an allowance that is given to local assembly members to fund their political activities. This episode and his subsequent resignation have focused public attention on the allowance. The important point is how to ensure transparency to ensure the allowance is used only for political activities.

The allowance was introduced by a revision in 2000 of the Local Autonomy Law to provide financial support for local assembly members producing policy proposals and making preparations for questions in assemblies.

Local governments provide allowances to parliamentary groups or to individual assembly members. For example, members of the Tokyo metropolitan assembly and the Osaka city assembly receive ¥600,000 a month and members of the Nagoya city assembly ¥500,000 a month. Hyogo Prefecture had paid its assembly members ¥500,000 a month, but reduced the allowance to ¥450,000 this month. Some local governments refrain from paying the allowance at all.

The allowance is officially intended to help assembly members deepen their knowledge in policy matters. When it was first introduced, however, cases of using the allowance for wining and dining and “study tours” that resembled sightseeing tours came to light. A 2012 revision in the law made it possible for assembly members to use the allowance for “other activities” as well. They are supposed to produce receipts for spending, but loopholes exist that can be exploited.

As reports of questionable spending came to light, members of the media and other critics began to refer to the allowance as “a second salary” for assembly members. Local residents made a series of audit requests to local governments and launched lawsuits demanding the return of money used for suspicious purposes to local governments’ coffers.

In response, local governments took steps to improve allowance bookkeeping. Most prefectural and major city assemblies issue financial statements on how assembly members have used the political activities allowance. But about one-third of the nation’s local assemblies still do not require their assembly members to file detailed reports on their spending.

It was belatedly discovered that Nonomura spent some ¥7.8 million of the allowance on transportation costs for some 340 business trips from fiscal 2011 through 2013 without producing any receipts. Records indicated he made repeat trips to four destinations mainly — Tokyo, Fukuoka and Hyogo Prefecture’s Kinosaki onsen and Sayo town.

The opacity of Nonomura’s spending increased as he used the allowance for private purposes and election campaigns as well as for policy research. Suspicious uses included salaries for relatives who worked for him, purchases of earthenware, an experiment in storing melons, and office overhead. The last item increased from some ¥150,000 in fiscal 2011 to some ¥1.26 million in fiscal 2012, and to ¥2.6 million in fiscal 2013.

The Hyogo prefectural government clearly failed to adequately monitor his spending. Local governments should set down clear standards for spending the allowance and consider making public the accounting records.

Assembly members must remember that the allowance is public money. Without strong transparency, citizens’ trust in local assemblies and their members will decline.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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