Most taxpayers want government to answer one pretty simple question: How do you spend my money?
This year, the Louisiana Association of Business Industry helped to form a broad, diverse coalition that called for an enhanced state spending transparency website – “LouisianaCheckbook.com” – to give taxpayers some answers to the unknown. After several attempts, legislation finally passed and progress is slowly being made.
A decade ago, to learn how money was spent, the public was forced to review the state budget online, which is generally 200+ pages in a PDF format. In 2008, the Legislature passed a bill to establish a state spending website now known as LaTrac, which had several useful features including a contracts database, information on boards and commissions, and some spending records from state departments. Louisiana received a 96 score from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, ranking #7 in the nation for the LaTrac site as recently as 2016.
Following the trends of best-practice states outlined in this same national report, the newly enhanced “LouisianaCheckbook.com” will make major improvements in three areas:
1. The WHO: The “LouisianaCheckbook.com” (Act 1) will add a number of major state entities that are not on LaTrac today. Act 1 requires the participation of universities, the Legislature, and the judiciary subject to appropriation. Though it may take time to create or fund integrated accounting systems, Act 1 still directs roughly 140 state governmental entities to “furnish information, reports, aid, services, and assistance” to the Commissioner of Administration “of the type, extent, format, frequency, and timing” for the Louisiana Checkbook.
Of note, local government spending is not required on “LouisianaCheckbook.com”, although various local entities are taking it upon themselves to create fiscal transparency websites with Lafayette Parish leading the way, launching LafayetteCheckbook.com, providing total fiscal transparency with figures updated daily. Both New Orleans and Baton Rouge are also engaged in Open Data efforts, which should eventually include local spending.
2. The WHAT: The information on the former website, LaTrac, was not as detailed as many other states. Frequently, large sums in the millions of dollars were lumped together into categories without any purpose or even dates.
Act 1 will add monthly reporting that includes:
- Details of expenditures, where available, specifically the name of the entity making the expenditure, name of the person receiving the payment, date and amount, a standardized descriptive title of the type and purpose of the expenditure, the manner of payment, and the funding source;
- More types of expenditures, specifically the details of credit card charges, mandated inter-agency payments, and aid to local government;
- More state contracts, including grants, purchase orders, memoranda of understanding, cooperative endeavor agreements, leases, and contracts that are fixed-price, cost, cost-plus-a-fixed-fee, or incentive as well as links to more information or supporting documentation for payment requests on contracts if available;
- A payroll database for all state employees that includes name, title, salary or hourly wage, total compensation, and cost of benefits;
- Categories and amounts of state debt compiled by the Treasurer’s Office, such as pensions, post-employment benefit obligations, capital construction, and local debt that is backed by the full faith and credit of the state, as well as details on annual debt service costs, sources of funding for debt obligations, per capita costs, and national comparisons of Louisiana’s debt;
- A tax incentives database with the amounts and names of the recipients of specific tax incentive expenditures that are currently in the state revenue forecast as well as the amount of the payment and value of these benefits to the recipient and the estimated net new jobs, payroll, and capital investment;
- Details on the appropriation and use of dedicated funds beyond the PDF or Excel version in place today;
- Performance metrics and tracking utilized by state agencies to monitor progress toward goals and objectives; and
- A repository for fiscal reports from across state government, such as revenue forecasts, tax exemptions and collections, budgeting, contracts, and the use of state funds for local purposes.
3. The HOW: While the former website had some ability to produce a bar graph or pie chart, the limited data made it difficult to analyze spending over time or on specific projects. It was also impossible to search for a specific board or agency or individual under the prior system.
Act 1 requires that the “LouisianaCheckbook.com” is provided at no cost to the public and with no user registration with the ability to:
- Search and aggregate data by all possible query combinations;
- Create, download, and print reports, graphs, charts, and tables with the ability to share on social media; and
- Access data in both desktop and mobile formats.
The state has launched the website with several agencies and is expected to add the spending of more agencies in phases until all of state government is on “LouisianaCheckbook.com” within three years.
This new website is not perfect. It also won’t answer every question a taxpayer may have. But it is an important start. Now, it’s up to us as taxpayers to become an army of “citizen auditors” by checking the site, asking tough questions and demanding detailed responses. It is our duty to push for more agencies and branches of government, both state and local, to come on board as soon as possible.
We the taxpayers have longed for this type of transparency for years…don’t wait too long to put it to good use. Visit https://checkbook.la.gov/ today to check it out.