(TNS) — The movement to create a more user-friendly budget transparency website in Louisiana keeps growing, and its backing likely got a hefty boost this week.
Hundreds of Louisiana's top business leaders were privy to a demonstration of Ohio Checkbook, which has become a rally point for Louisiana groups pushing the transparency website as one piece of a larger deal on the state budget, which faces yet another shortfall this year.
As Frank Kohstall directed the Ohio site between brightly-colored pie charts and bar graphs with expenditure break downs, several attendees of Thursday's Louisiana Association of Business and Industry conference pulled out their phones and began playing with the web version. Many right away signed a petition in support of the proposal.
They audibly "ohh"-ed as Kohstall drilled each expenditure down to a mock check like a business or individual might write, detailing where the money went and which state source provided it.
Louisiana has a budget transparency site already, but the slick graphics and easy navigation for which Ohio Checkbook has won national acclaim and a loyal following in Louisiana.
LABI President Stephen Waguespack said that government technology has an obligation to stay caught up with the times. Recounting the evolution of apps and social media sites in the past decade, he called the existing LaTrac "a good site, but it's 10 years old."
"In technology years, that 10 years is 80 years," he said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration, which has been locked in negotiations with legislative leaders over the best way to address the looming "fiscal cliff," has maintained that Louisiana gets good marks for its budget transparency site, LaTrac, coming in 7th in an analysis that ranked Ohio 1st.
One of the hurdles, the governor's office has argued, is that a larger and costly technology upgrade is needed before the information can be centralized. And it won't lead to any immediate savings.
Randy Davis, an assistant commissioner in the Division of Administration, said it will take about three years and $26 million to complete that process.
"We certainly are willing to work with everybody in a bipartisan way to make that occur," he said.
He added that the administration is expecting to roll out some Ohio Checkbook-like enhancements in the coming weeks and more agencies are being added.
But for now, legislators have added the Ohio Checkbook model to a list of legislative priorities that they want before they will agree to Edwards' proposals to cover revenue that the state will lose when temporary tax measures expire June 30.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said he has spent a lot of time checking out the Ohio site.
"It's intriguing," he said. "The more I dig, the more I find that would be useful."
But even with all its praise here, the Ohio site apparently has met resistance in the Ohio Legislature. It has never been put into law. A 2017 attempt to pass legislation that would establish the transparency site as a function of the state treasurer's office was rejected after only making it out of its first committee.
Kohstall said that Mandell jumped in on the project himself without their authority after the state was blasted as being among the least transparent state budgets.
"No one was really taking the lead," Kohstall said.
State Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, has so far pre-filed the only measure outlining a plan for a "Louisiana Checkbook" site for the regular session. Lawmakers still have time to file similar bills before the March 12 regular session, and it could also come up if a special session is held this month.
Under Ivey's proposal, the site would run through the state treasurer's office. Each state agency would be required to pay a pro rata share of the cost of setting it up and providing information to the treasurer.
State Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican who previously served in the state House and had a position on the budget committee, said he hasn't talked to Ivey about the idea and he didn't personally champion putting the site under his office's control. His office has no authority over the state budget.
"I support anything that makes this process more transparent," he said.
He said he is focused on using his position as treasurer to highlight the state's debt.
"We have too much debt in Louisiana and people don't see it," Schroder said.
©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.