May 18, 2007
Spending Data Soon a Click Away
By Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer
Kansas wants to make checking up on state spending as easy as googling the meaning of the word "Jayhawk."
So the Sunflower State plans to launch a first-of-its-kind Web site where users type in simple questions to unearth details about government expenses that now are hard to hunt down.
Want to know how much Kansas taxpayers spent on athletic programs at the University of Kansas, home of the Jayhawks? Or want to see how much the governor's office shelled out for pencils and paper? Three years and $40 million in technology upgrades from now, the answer will be at Kansans' fingertips.
The idea of opening up a state's accounting ledgers to computer-savvy public snoops is championed by taxpayer-rights groups and is gaining traction in other states, too. Both chambers of the Oklahoma Legislature agreed to the concept and now are ironing out differences between their plans. Fifteen other states also are working on so-called spending-transparency initiatives, according to Americans for Tax Reform , an anti-tax group.
"There's no excuse in our age of technology to not have this information readily available and accessible to citizens," said Annie Patnaude, a spokeswoman for Americans for Prosperity , a group promoting limited government.
The idea for the state Web sites spun from a similar, congressionally ordered project to digitally track U.S. government spending by the end of the year. Democrats and Republicans in Congress were inspired by a nonprofit Web site by OMB Watch that helps citizens track federal spending. The effort was funded by The Sunlight Foundation , a Washington, D.C., group that also supports the state transparency initiatives.
Meanwhile, Google, the Internet search company, last month announced it is partnering with Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia to make online records - such as driver's licenses, real-estate records and library collections - easier to retrieve through search engines. While Google's pilot projects will make public databases more accessible to the public, the Kansas plan is more ambitious because it involves creating an entirely new database.
Proponents of the efforts to make spending easier to track say most current state Web sites that display digital public records are too confusing or too limited or display data that's too hard to digest for most average citizens.
"There are many people in government who say, 'We already make this information public.' But the public's idea of 'public' differs a whole lot from the political establishment's sometimes," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union , another limited-government group.
A good search engine would allow users to type in "furniture" and return records on how much taxpayers' money was spent on desks, lamps, tables and chairs, regardless of how they're classified in an accounting system, he said.
An easy-to-search site also would be an improvement over current sites that make records hard to use because of the way they're formatted, added Patnaude from the Americans for Prosperity. For example, a lengthy portable document format (PDF) file is far harder for Web users to sift through than a searchable database.
As simple as it sounds to create a single Web site to search government spending, the process can be tedious and expensive.
In Kansas, for example, parts of the state's accounting system are 20 to 30 years old, making it extremely difficult to use, said Gavin Young, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Administration.
But because Kansas lawmakers knew they needed to replace the system anyway, they also required that the technology upgrade include a site for the public to see how taxpayers' dollars are spent. Besides replacing old computers, other changes will allow the public to look at expenses by all of state government, rather than only by gathering information agency by agency.
Kansas state Rep. Jim Morrison (R) predicts that ordinary citizens will uncover wasteful spending. In his oversight committees, fraud has been uncovered by people noticing small details, such as a high volume of transactions at unlikely locations, he said.
"There are all kinds of people who will ask silly questions out there and fancy themselves as bird dogs, and I want to encourage them," he said.