Arkansas' Open Checkbook Receives Glowing Review

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013 12:00 am  

DF&A’s Paul Louthian said the open checkbook site launched in July. (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

The state of Arkansas won’t receive an F grade again this year for its lack of online transparency involving government spending.

While the grades from the consumer organization United States Public Interest Research Group of Boston won’t be released until March, the state’s website, Transparency.Arkansas.gov, has already received praise since the Department of Finance & Administration launched it in July. The website allows users to root around to see how much money state agencies have paid vendors. It also has a number of other features such as links to candidate contribution and expenditure reports as well as legislative audit reports.

“I like that it’s got contracts up there,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst for tax and budget issues at U.S. Public Interest Research Group of Boston, which gave Arkansas an F grade in March 2012, months before the state’s website was operational. “So if you found something or a contract and then you want to look at whether that company lobbies and gives campaign contributions, you can do that from the same home screen.

“That’s pretty innovative,” Baxandall said. “It sounds kind of common sense, but it’s something that very few states do.”

He said he’s not sure what grade the state will receive in March, but it won’t be an F.

Others are happy with the ease of access to information.

“I’m very pleased with what the state’s done,” said Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, who supported and lobbied for the online checkbook when the legislation was being considered. The Arkansas General Assembly passed legislation in 2011 to have the DF&A create and maintain the site.

“I think the Department of Finance & Administration went above and beyond what the law required,” Darr said.

He said the law only required that the website show expenses, which could have been done by posting an Excel spreadsheet. But the website allows people to search by a number of different categories from agencies to vendors. “They made it really customer-friendly and easy to navigate,” Darr said.

About 250 to 300 people visit the website daily, said Paul Louthian, the administrator of the office of accounting for the DF&A.

It cost the state $425,000 to build the website. Two people were hired to maintain the site, and their salaries and benefits total $145,000 annually.

Still, having the website should save Arkansas money, said former state Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, who proposed the legislation in the House at the end of 2010. Department heads might think twice before buying something with taxpayer money that they know can be easily searched with just a few clicks, he said. “Any citizen can become a watchdog of a particular department or agency,” Garner said.

 

 

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