A fresh idea is catching on at the State Capitol: budget transparency. A searchable database of the state’s checkbook. Available online for free.
Kind of like the one set up a month ago by a conservative think tank.
The new website created by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy showing all state expenditures, including payroll, has drawn thousands of viewers since it appeared Feb. 8. It also has drawn complaints from some, including legislators, of inaccuracies.
Rep. Demetrios S. Giannaros,D-Farmington, said the site overstates his wife’s salary as a part-time teacher at Tunxis Community College by $130,000. Similarly, the legislative salary of Rep. John E. Stripp, R-Weston, is over-reported by about $12,000.
So Giannaros has proposed a bill to have the state disclose the information itself.
“We should not leave that up to private not-for-profits that may have a political agenda,” Giannaros told the Appropriations Committee at a public hearing Friday on his proposal.
Heath Fahle, policy director of the Yankee Institute, said any inaccuracies on the institute’s site are the result of incorrect information provided by the state comptroller’s office. Suggestions that the institute is manipulating the data for political reasons are “preposterous,” he said.
Still, he welcomes the state’s interest in posting its own data.
“If the state wants to start doing this, great. We will happily go out of this business,” said Fahle.
The idea of creating a state database seems to be winning supporters, including the co-chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Rep. John Geragosian of New Britain.
But others, such as Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, and Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, said they cannot support spending money or using staff time when the state is facing a $1.3 billion deficit through June 2011.
McLachlan said the service is already being provided for free and the state “has a bad habit of duplicating efforts.” And if the information is flawed he said, “Then the problem is with the comptroller’s records.”
Neither the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis, the comptroller’s office nor the governor’s budget office has done a cost estimate, but officials at all three offices have said the costs would not be substantial.
The state’s chief financial officer, Comptroller Nancy S. Wyman, says the task can be easily accomplished since every expenditure is already input into a system called Core-CT. The system would just need to be opened for the public to view and organized to be user-friendly.
“We already have the software. It’s just getting our people to do it,” she said during an interview. There also would have to be safeguards to ensure that information that is not public, such as Social Security numbers, remains confidential.
Likewise, the OFA is working on a site for lawmakers and staff to use to more easily get information, and it should be up and running by next spring, said OFA Director Alan Calandro.
“Right now information is scattered all over the place. It’s not helpful,” he said, adding that he believes it could easily be made public if the lawmakers choose.
Using an already existing system is appealing to many, since getting funding for a new system may prove to be difficult as the state is facing huge deficits.
It cost the Yankee Institute $50,000 to put its database on line, including the non-profit’s cost to pay staff inputting the data into the system.
“That’s nothing in relation to our $18.6 billion budget. Even if it is $50,000 a year, that’s a tiny cost. We could save that much by eliminating a revealed unnecessary cost,” Giannaros said. “Government should be open and viewable to those who paid for it.”
While state lawmakers decide whether to launch their checkbook for all to see, CtSunlight.org is generating a flood of traffic: The site averages about 5,000 page views a day and 63,000 unique users have visited the site since it launched, Fahle said.
Several other states have decided to open their records – including in Utah and Nebraska. In other states, non-profits have taken on the task – including New York and Maine. The federal government lists its expenditures at USASpending.gov.
If the state does launch it’s own site, Fahle said the Yankee Institute will happily step aside so they can focus on their next project: opening the 169 municipalities and school system budgets for public scrutiny.