Monday, February 6, 2012

Show Us the Money! Governor Walker Drops the Ball on Spending Transparency.

The following chart on comparative state budget transparency appeared on Andrew Sullivan's blog today:

The source of the rankings was the U.S. Federation of Public Interest Research Groups, or U.S. PIRG.  Wisconsin received a D grade on budget transparency for 2011, which was a little surprising given that this was an issue the governor ran on in 2010.

One of Governor Walker's campaign promises was to institute a new web site for Wisconsin taxpayers similar to one he had initiated as Milwaukee County Executive, where citizens could track government expenditures.  As reported by Richard Moore, after candidate Walker's editorial board interview with The Lakeland Times in the fall of 2010:
When he says he believes in government transparency, it's not just a campaign slogan, Walker said.   "I don't just say that, I've lived it," he said. "(In Milwaukee County), we have put all government purchases online at no additional cost. Every purchase, everything we enter into our accounting software, automatically in real time goes on to a website that tells the public every purchase by department. Not only a journalist but a citizen journalist or anybody else can track it down."
The 2011 - 2013 Biennial Budget, passed seven and a half months ago, provided for a website that would allow citizens to see every expenditure the state made greater in amount than $100.  However, the budget bill, as passed and sent to the governor, only required the site to go on-line by the end of the biennium, July 1, 2013. The Governor vetoed that portion of the budget bill, and in his veto message stated that he intended to tell state agencies to immediately start reporting monthly expenditures.

Jason Stein, of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on this back in July of last year:
In his veto message, Walker said he would direct state agencies to work with officials from the State of Missouri to draw on that state's website to help create a site for Wisconsin. While Walker served as Milwaukee County executive, the county drew on the Missouri model to create a similar county site.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the advantages of the Missouri site are that it's effective and relatively cheap to implement.
So far, Gov. Scott Walker's administration has already put limited agency-level information online in response to the new law, Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said. There is no firm timeline yet for a full implementation, but it is a priority, he said.
"This isn't going to happen by the end of the month, I'll tell you that. But we're working diligently," Huebsch said.
So it was seven months ago that Secretary Huebsch was saying "not by the end of the month."   I spoke today with Scott Thornton at DOA who was very pleasant and responsive, but said that while the website was still in the process of being implemented,  there was no specific timeline for it to be completed.   He did say that the veto of the July 1, 2013 implementation deadline was done to give the state government "flexibility" in the implementation timeline.

The Missouri website is not even the creme de la creme of these transparency portals among the states, yet it is quite good.  It reports all expenditures, not just those over $100 as mandated by the Wisconsin law.   For example, I was able to determine which dry cleaners in St. Louis got paid for dry-cleaning services under the judiciary budget, presumably for occasionally cleaning the judges' and justices' robes.   (Or maybe the annual Christmas parties got out of hand.)


In addition to Jane Q. Citizen seeing how her tax dollars are spent, the site could be used by potential vendors to see where large expenditures are being made for services that the vendor could possibly reduce the cost of by better competitive bidding on the contract.

The failure of the State of Wisconsin to get this site up and running by now makes one wonder how long it took County Executive Walker to get the Milwaukee County site up after he decided to implement it.  According to USPIRG, the cost of implementing some of the highest graded state fiscal transparency sites has been as little as $40,000.

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