Eyes on Spending

One of the great things about government transparency is its trans-partisan appeal. Conservatives can distrust government just as much as liberals, sometimes more. Still, when it comes to high-tech watchdog organizations and initiatives, most innovation seems to come from vaguely progressive, if officially nonpartisan, sources.

One of the most exciting groups, the Sunlight Foundation, is strenuously nonpartisan in its politics, but its mood and aesthetic are reminiscent of Google—youthful and hardly conservative.

That's what makes SeeTheSpending.org, a new online database launched Sept. 30 by the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, interesting. The MCPP—not to be confused with its left-leaning anagram, the Public Policy Center of Mississippi—aims "(t)o advance the ideals of limited government, free markets and strong traditional families." On SeeTheSpending.org, the center describes itself as "nonpartisan," but there are hints of the group's conservative ideological orientation.

The site is a searchable database of spending records. For now, the site is limited to expenditures by state government, but MCPP plans to expand it to include spending and revenue data for counties, cities and school districts.

SeeTheSpending.org promises to show how the state spends citizens' "hard-earned tax dollars." Users can trawl the site's database of state spending reports using multiple search terms: private vendor name, state agency or department name, or spending category. The search page's interface is designed like a check: Users select a fiscal year on the "Date" line, pick a recipient vendor on the line marked "Pay to the order of" and choose a spending category on the "Memo" line. The check bears the signature "Mississippi Taxpayer."

MCPP President Forest Thigpen says that the check interface was intended to be more intuitive for users, who may not be familiar with state government and its spending habits. He has a point: whether or not they know the state's budget minutia, most Mississippians are familiar with a checkbook.

But the personal check is a poor metaphor to convey the way state government spends its money. Sure, income and sales tax collections from individuals feed into the state's coffers, but so do business taxes, estate taxes, fuel taxes and various fees.

Design quibbles aside, SeeTheSpending.org has one major weakness, as of now. Despite its promise to show "how" the state spends taxpayer money, the site really only shows where taxpayer money goes. It gives barely any information about how the state uses its revenues.

This limitation makes SeeTheSpending.org ideally suited for finding outrageous, but largely context-less, statistics. The state spent $988,076 last fiscal year on something called "deceased employee payments." That same year, it spent $51,068.88 on "cameras under $250," $121,982.68 on "out-of-country travel," and nearly $4.3 million on out-of-state travel. The state spent $510,652.47 on "entertainers fees," but the website currently has no details on how each particular state agency spent that money.

Some expenditures are largely self-explanatory. There's not much mystery in the $1.6 million state agencies spent on "food for business meetings" in the 2010 fiscal year.

But other expenses deserve greater explanation. EarthGrains Baking Companies made $246,234 from the state Health Department last year, supplying food to hospitals. The database also shows that EarthGrains received another $202,960 from the Health Department that year for "other assistance" but offers no useful detail beyond the source of the funds.

The Mississippi Development Authority paid Jackson-based IMS (Integrated Management Services) Engineers $3.15 million last year from stimulus and energy funds, but the MCPP database offers "contractual services" as the only additional detail.

Thigpen says the database already includes "pretty much everything we have," and the Center for Public Policy is asking state agencies to provide additional information about their expenses. SeeTheSpending.org was nearly two years in the making, and the center plans to expand its scope significantly in the future.

The database will add county spending data within the next six weeks for counties that have already agreed to participate, Thigpen said. Madison County signed on early and its data served as a template for SeeTheSpending.org's developers. Other counties have been more reluctant. An attorney for Issaquena County told the center that its request for spending records would cost $1,000 per hour to complete.

"Issaquena is almost a non-county, it's so small, which may be why they don't want their spending exposed—because that would then prove that they don't need to be a county," Thigpen said.

Hinds County has yet to respond to MCPP's public-records request, though. Thigpen said that his organization submitted a formal request two months ago for Hinds County's claims dockets for the past five years.

Robert Graham, president of the Hinds County Board of Supervisors, said that he was unaware of SeeTheSpending.org or of any request from the center. "This is the first I've ever heard of it," Graham said.

Graham added that he would not be opposed to sharing the county's spending information. "We've got nothing to hide," he said.

Comment at http://www.jfp.ms.


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