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)

Baxandall agreed. “If something smells bad or looks suspicious, it’s pretty easy to start following up” on it, he said.

The website also will reduce the number of Freedom of Information Act requests about financial information because a citizen will be able to turn to the website for answers, said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, who sponsored the legislation in the Arkansas Senate.

The impact of the website has already been seen in an article by Michael Cook, political commentator for Talk Business. He reported that Secretary of State Mark Martin paid $400 to a person to play Santa Claus at the state Capitol when the job had been done for free by attorney Bob Newcomb of Little Rock. Newcomb lost his Santa gig after he sued the Secretary of State’s Office on behalf of a client, the article said.

Cook said in the article that he confirmed the $400 amount with the person who played Santa “and he’s listed as receiving $400 on Arkansas’s state government online checkbook under the Secretary of State’s expenditures section.”

Higher Ed

The state’s website doesn’t include Arkansas colleges, which list their expenses on their own websites.

Garner said the costs were higher for colleges to be added to the state’s website, which is why they were given extra time to have their open checkbooks site operational. Colleges had a deadline of October, instead of the state’s July deadline. Arkansas Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle said the colleges all have their information posted.

“So far, it’s been working fine,” she said. Some would like to see the open checkbook extended to local governments, but that doesn’t look like it will happen anytime soon.

The counties won’t be able to do it because they don’t have the “thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to spend” on a system similar to the state’s, said Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties.

“One of the problems that you have is you have 75 counties that aren’t tied together with a similar computer system like you get with the state,” he said. Still, if someone wants financial information from a county, it will be available at the county clerk’s office in the courthouse, he said.

A Goal of Transparency

The roots for the open checkbook started in the 2009 when state Rep. Dan Greenberg, R-Little Rock, introduced legislation to create a searchable website where citizens could see what agencies were spending their money on.

But the legislation didn’t make it out of committee. One of the sticking points was the proposed cost to implement the website, which was estimated in the millions of dollars. After the 2009 session, the cost for the website dropped.

“I had constituents that had asked me if that was something I was willing to take on,” Dismang said. He said others were interested in getting the legislation passed, including Gov. Mike Beebe.

The goal of the website was to show people what was going on with their tax dollars, Dismang said. “The overall thing that we wanted to do was make sure how we spend tax dollars was something that was accessible to people of Arkansas,” he said.



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