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.

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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