Websites put light on state spending

JACKSON – People wanting to know how much state agencies spend on travel, salaries, vendors or other such items have the information at their fingertips.
All they have to do is log on to www.transparency.mississippi.gov.
Much of the information has been on the website for the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration (www.dfa.state. ms.us) since about 2006.
Last session, state Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, amended the budget bill for DFA to enhance what can be found on the website, such as information about grant expenditures.
For the upcoming legislative session, Turner is working on a bill to expand the budget information available on the Internet and to give the office of Auditor Stacey Pickering authority to ensure that each state agency cooperates with DFA in getting the information online.
“I think anytime we spend taxpayer money it is in the best interest of our citizens if they know how the money was spent, where it was spent and for what purpose it was spent,” Turner said. “That way they can determine if we are good legislators … The more transparency the better.”
Pickering says he embraces the concept of providing information on where and how state revenue is being spent, but because he hasn’t seen the bill yet, he’s not clear what role his office would have.
“I do applaud Rep. Turner for his efforts,” he said, “and I support those efforts.”
The problem, Turner and others have said, is that DFA is limited in the type of information that can be placed on the web because of its antiquated computer system.
It is still, to a certain extent, hit-and-miss in what information can be found. For instance, some information about vendors is still difficult to access.
“It is still a work in progress,” admitted Kim Wiggins, a spokeswoman for DFA.
“We’re in the process of working on the website to make it cleaner and a little easier for citizens to use.”
System revamp
DFA, which as the state’s fiscal office disburses funds to each agency as authorized by the Legislature, is in the process of obtaining a new computer system. The new computer system should allow DFA to provide more information and to design a more user-friendly system.
The Legislature has approved $18 million in bonds over a two-year period for the new computer system.
Similar information about state’s appropriations and expenditures can be found at seethespending.org, a site developed by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.
Forest Thigpen, president of the Center for Public Policy, said the information on his website was obtained from DFA and is much of the same information found on the state website.
But Thigpen said, at least partially because of the limitations of the aging state computer system, the information at seethespending.org is in a more user-friendly format.
“On of the principles of government we have espoused is that the legislative process begins and ends with the people,” Thigpen said. “In other words, for the people to exercise their role appropriately, they must know what government is doing.
“This is a way to let you know what they are doing with the money.”
Like the state’s website, Public Policy’s lacks some information, but Thigpen praised DFA for working to expand what’s available.
Part of the problem comes from a failure by some agencies to post information in a timely manner. But by giving the auditor’s office oversight responsibility, someone will be in a position to work with the agencies to make sure the information gets on line.
Currently, some state agencies provide a link to www.transparency.mississippi .gov.
Turner’s legislation would require all agency websites to provide a link.
According to the website, for the current fiscal year, $47.6 million has been appropriated for travel while $1.7 billion has been budgeted for salaries and $1.3 billion has been budgeted for contractual services. That, and other categories, can be broken down by agency and also by such items as specific contracts.
The reason Turner wants more information on grants is that $16.2 billion has been budgeted for subsides, loans and grants. Much of that would be federal funds.
Other interesting information: $14.2 million has been budgeted for vehicles and $166,874 for cell phones and other wireless devices.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

BOBBY HARRISON / Daily Journal Jackson Bureau