Ohio Transparency Portal at Center of Louisiana Budget Talks

The online state budgeting tool OhioCheckbook.com is being looked at as a means of charting a path out of Louisiana’s financial troubles.

by Elizabeth Crisp, The Advocate / January 29, 2018
Courtesy Treasurer of Ohio

(TNS) — As Louisiana politicians try to find solutions for the state's seemingly never-ending financial struggles, a website that sheds light on another state's budget could play a key role in forging a plan.

You may not have visited OhioCheckbook.com yet, but you're probably about to hear a lot about it if you haven't already.

It's quickly becoming one of the key budget reform efforts that is being pushed to counterbalance the need for revenue that's needed to close a looming $1 billion budget shortfall, even though creating something similar here would not provide any immediate savings to the state and would likely cost thousands upfront to build.

Supporters of the initiative say it would be worth it because it would instill confidence in the state budget after years of doom-and-gloom discussions and temporary repairs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards unveiled a doomsday budget scenario last week with nearly $1 billion in cuts that would be needed if lawmakers don't reach an agreement to increase revenue when temporary tax measures expire June 30. Under that scenario, the popular Taylor Opportunity Program for Students would lose all state funding, health care programs would be deeply slashed and funding for local governments would be pared back in many areas, among other cuts.

Edwards said he doesn't support those cuts and instead wants lawmakers to increase some taxes and eliminate some deductions. So far, no agreement has been reached.

That's where the Ohio budget transparency site comes into play.

OhioCheckbook.com is the brainchild of Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, a Republican who took office in 2011. It debuted in December 2014.

"I believe the people of Ohio have a right to know how their tax money is being spent," Mandel said in a statement to The Advocate. "By posting local government spending online, we are empowering taxpayers across Ohio to hold public officials accountable."

The goal behind it is to save state money by forcing politicians and bureaucrats to consider waste when they spend taxpayer money.

"Treasurer Mandel launched OhioCheckbook.com because he believes that taxpayers have a right to follow their money," Mandel's press secretary, Mandi Merritt, said. "By shining sunlight on state spending and decisions made deep in the bureaucracy, OhioCheckbook.com enables taxpayers to help root out waste, fraud and abuse."

The website is sleek and clean, with colorful pie charts and interactive tools to take users deeper into each spending line until they reach an illustration of a check for each expenditure.

If users come across interesting bits of information, they can click on a tab that lets them automatically share via Facebook, Twitter or other popular social media apps, or they can press another button to save an electronic copy to print.

Users can search specific data, browse the site's most popular searches and compare across agencies or expenditure items with ease.

There are separate sections of the site that similarly track employee salaries, tax credits and workforce development efforts.

The site has tracked more than $644 billion in total spending over the past decade.

"Everything from $2 for a pack of pencils to millions of dollars in road contracts, and everything in between," Merritt said.

It has clocked nearly 900,000 searches since it launched, according to the Ohio treasurer's office.

And it's getting attention nationally.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest advocacy group, ranked Ohio No. 1 with an A+ in budget transparency because of the site in 2016, the most recent report released.

"Top-flight transparency web portals can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts,” PIRG said.

Beyond the accountability element, the PIRG report notes the state benefiting from competition that spawned from Ohio's site when companies used Ohio Checkbook to determine they could offer the state a better value on products compared to existing vendors.

In a recent interview with The Advocate editorial board, Gov. Edwards said he has been approached about the idea during budget negotiations, but he still needs more information about the program and expressed reservations about the upfront costs that it could pose.

"There's nothing about that proposal that causes me issues," he said. "We can't get it done until we invest the money to consolidate the computers of various agencies."

"Transparency is not a problem for me," he added.

OhioCheckbook.com costs the state about $814,000, which the treasurer's office says was fully funded by the office's existing operating budget. Merritt said the treasurer has voluntarily cut his budget throughout his administration and used a portion of the savings to pay for the initiative.

It was built in-house by the treasurer’s office and took about two years to create. Because the Louisiana treasurer serves a different role, such a website would likely fall under the Division of Administration here, rather than the treasurer's office.

The creation of such a website could become one of the big issues ahead as state lawmakers look to permanently shore up the state's finances.

The push has the support of a broad coalition of influential groups, including fiscally conservative Republican legislators, the Louisiana Association for Business and Industry, the Pelican Institute and Americans for Prosperity's Louisiana arm, among others.

LABI President Stephen Waguespack said such a site can help restore the public's faith in government after a long period of dire budget discussions and give people a better picture of where the state is spending about $28 billion each year.

"There is so much broken trust with government right now," he said.

AFP is launching a campaign to promote the idea. A petition is already being circulated online, and the group plans a significant social media push and Google ad buy.

"I think it's an issue that has an appeal to both sides of the aisle," said John Kay, Louisiana state director for Americans for Prosperity.

Louisiana has been stuck in a cycle of constant budget issues that have prompted reviews of potential tax hikes. In 2016, state lawmakers shored up a $2 billion budget shortfall largely by temporarily raising the state's sales tax by a penny, solidifying Louisiana in its position as having the highest average combined state and local sales tax rate in the country.

With those tax measures set to expire on June 30, Edwards has urged lawmakers to come up with a more long-term solution for raising revenue through proposals that call for removing some tax exemptions and increasing other taxes, while letting the sales tax hike roll off.

Some legislators have suggested that continuing all or part of the sales tax hike may be a more preferable option, which Edwards opposes as a permanent solution.

"It's every year now, it seems, that the Legislature and the governor are sparring over the budget and tax increases," Kay said. "The thing that gets lost is the accountability to the people. They don't really know where their money is going."

He said even if it doesn't produce immediate budget savings, it shows that state officials care what their constituents think and how taxpayer money is spent.

"If the Legislature and the governor decide this is the right way for Louisiana to head, (a transparency website) is the biggest step that they can take to restore some faith in state government and where the money is going," Kay said. "It's a good gesture and the right thing to do by the people."

Kay said he understands that it will take time, but ultimately the good faith gesture is worth it.

"I think it will take a little bit of time, but the sooner the better," he said.

Louisiana has a website with budget data that is updated on a monthly basis — the Louisiana Transparency and Accountability portal, commonly called LaTrac.

The site earned Louisiana an A rating and Top 10 ranking in PIRG's 2016 transparency report — the same analysis that gave Ohio an A+.

But it doesn't give users access to nearly as much information as Ohio Checkbook and is far less user-friendly. Users can see how much each state agency paid to vendors, but it doesn't identify individual sources of funding or individual payouts in the way that Ohio's website does.

Even the website address, the clunky https://wwwcfprd.doa.louisiana.gov/latrac/home.cfm, is less attractive than the more simple OhioCheckbook.com.

"It is a huge time investment to try to determine where money is going in state government," Kay said. "We know in general who it's being appropriated to, but once it's appropriated, what is it being spent on? Just let folks know."

©2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.