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State’s contract spending transparency still lacking

The Post-Crescent, Appleton

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Wisconsin residents have waited a long time to get a good look at the state’s checkbook.

They’re going to be waiting longer.

Nearly six years after legislators passed a law aimed at increasing transparency of government spending by posting contract information online, the effort remains flawed. And while the state last year set a new, more ambitious goal, that project also is unfinished, even as other states post similar information for their residents.

The good news, state officials promise: They are on track to upgrade a state website by year’s end that will provide a crystal clear look at how government is spending the public’s treasure.

“The website is in development; we’re committed to seeing it through,” Jocelyn Webster, spokeswoman for the state Department of Administration, told The Post-Crescent last week, on the eve of Sunshine Week, a national effort by news organizations and civic groups to promote open government. “The (Gov. Scott) Walker administration is absolutely committed to transparency in government,” she said.

Count Mike McCabe as a skeptic. The executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, has heard that sort of talk in years past.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” McCabe said. “The state has not had a very good track record in developing these kinds of systems.”

The current system, called Contract Sunshine, was created by law in 2006 and requires all state agencies to list details about contracts worth $10,000 or more online. It took almost two years for the website to get up and running, and it has been fraught with problems ever since, although things are improving.

In a Sunshine Week report two years ago, The Post-Crescent found information online for only 14 of 98 state agencies, boards and universities. After The P-C’s report, northeastern Wisconsin lawmakers pushed for improvements. State Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, requested a state audit.

The results of the audit, released in August, mirrored what the newspaper had found. “Although some had expected the Contract Sunshine (website) to serve as an ‘open checkbook’ showing how state agencies spend public funds, it has been of limited value in providing the public with clear, comprehensive, and useful information,” auditors wrote.

In the state budget approved last summer, the Legislature called for an overhaul, one that shines a light far deeper into the checkbook – to purchases as small as $100.

“If they do it right, this will be the greatest degree of transparency for the taxpayers of Wisconsin that I think any state has,” said state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, one of the lawmakers who pushed for improvements.

Although Wisconsin has earned higher marks in some areas of openness in government in national comparisons, transparency in spending is not one of them.

The Contract Sunshine site received a grade of D+ in a state-by-state study last year by the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, an independent consumer group based in Madison.

“Overall, we have a lot of work to do in Wisconsin,” said Bruce Speight, the group’s director. “We are falling behind what other states are doing. While in the state budget we had hoped that we would be moving forward on giving taxpayers information about state spending, we haven’t seen improvements thus far. I guess the old saying goes, talk is cheap.”

In a spot check of the site last week, The P-C found no spending data in the past quarter for the University of Wisconsin System, which spends more than $1 billion each year.

Reid Magney, a spokesman for the accountability board, said apparent miscommunication between the UW System and his agency was to blame and that the data would be updated.

The P-C also noticed an absence of “certifications” listed for the last quarter of 2011. Agencies are asked to file certifications quarterly to show they are in compliance with the reporting law. That information, too, is posted online to let the public know who isn’t following the rules.

Magney said the staff member who posts the information was busy with the state’s new voter ID law and recall elections. “It was just something he hadn’t had time to do.”

After The P-C’s inquiry, the staffer updated the site, which now lists the Department of Administration & CAPS agencies, Department of Transportation and Safety & Professional Services as non-compliant agencies in the last quarter of 2011.

In a memo to lawmakers earlier this year, Mike Huebsch, secretary of the state Department of Administration, said the initial plan was to roll out the upgraded site to the public in phases. But then it became clear that the data was so interrelated that doing so “could potentially present a misleading picture of total expenditures – in complete contrast to the intent of the Legislature in calling for the creation of the website.”

Webster, the spokeswoman, said creating the site requires lots of detailed work.

“Part of that is because we are pulling information together on this website for all branches of government, and not all of them use central payroll or central accounting, as well as the UW System,” she said.

Huebsch said “barring any other unforeseen issues,” his agency could complete the site by the end of 2012.

“We remain committed to bringing this system online as soon as practical and in a manner that provides a full and accurate picture of where the taxpayer money is spent,” he said.

The goal, Webster said, is a site that is comprehensive and easy to use.

“We have an obligation to taxpayers to do that.”

Information from: The Post-Crescent,

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