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Expenditures bask in the Texas sunshine

Originally Published in Statewise Fall 2007

by Juliet Dickason

It's a national movement, transparency in government finances. In this state, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs was first in line, posting her agency's expenditures on the Window on State Government website just after taking office in January.

"As Texas Comptroller I'm responsible for safeguarding the hard-earned dollars Texans pay in taxes," says Combs. "And I want them to have a clear and transparent view into how those dollars are spent."

Other Texas agencies' expenditures appeared on her website as well, even before the 80th Texas Legislature, Regular Session, issued a mandate in House Bill 3430. The bill made Texas one of the first states to officially require publicly available online information and tools to examine state government spending. It set a deadline of Oct. 1, 2007, for the Comptroller's office to post state financial data on a searchable website. A "check register" with transactions for all agencies, including institutions of higher education, is now online.

Only expenditures from Oct. 1 forward are required, but Comptroller Combs posted summary data for the seven previous fiscal years as well as detailed data beginning Sept. 1, 2007.

"Our goal is to demystify government finances," she says. "By sharing information and shedding new light on state spending, we can continuously spot ways to combine resources, pursue more effective purchasing strategies and set the bar for saving taxpayer dollars. Texans deserve no less."

A number of other states either have issued or are negotiating similar legislative or administrative directives. They are leading a movement that truly is national, given the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act Congress passed just last year. It set wheels in motion for offering, by January 2008, searchable online financial information for federal contracts and grants. In Texas, money spent under grants and contracts is included among other expenditures.

Cast, search, recast and go at it again

Where the Money Goes is a website that, true to Texas style, doesn't mess around. It lines up transaction details at the ground level — paying agency, amount, date, payee name, object category and comptroller object. It layers them with hierarchical summary information, all ready to move on cue and uncover a single transaction. And, it offers quarterly expenditures by class and item for numerous agencies that can provide National Institute of Governmental Purchasing codes (NIGP codes, traditionally known in Texas as TBPC class and item codes).

The website serves anyone with Internet access — vendors, the media, interested citizens and state agencies. Users can search and drill down, cast and recast, and download data to answer questions such as, "How much is being spent for printing services, and who are the contractors?" "How much was this vendor paid last year by all agencies? By any one agency?" "How does our agency's spending distribution compare with other agencies?"

Do what you do

And what about your role in posting expenditures? Now that your agency Web site includes a link to Where the Money Goes, you don't need to do much more than you already do. Your agency's data will slide out of the Uniform Statewide Accounting System (USAS) and appear online. If your agency maintains expenditures by NIGP codes, we'll let you know if we need any information beyond the quarterly reports you are now sending.

You do need to be ready to answer questions you may get from the world at large. Tom Mathey, Fiscal Management Division assistant director, says, "Expenditure information was always available on request. But now it will have a lot more exposure. You may get questions like, 'Why does your agency need widgets?'"

And of course, you need to do what you already do so well — ensure the integrity of your data. Mathey suggests that you consider afresh how you make sure every transaction is accurately entered. "Continue to make sure your people are well trained and that they understand how every object code is critical. Not only will the transaction be visible online, it will also feed into your annual financial report and other state reports — and ultimately into decisions the Legislature and other decision-makers base on them."

Last but not least, the legislation specifically places responsibility for protecting confidential data squarely on you, the agency flagging information in USAS.

Protecting the protectors

HB 3430 excludes two types of information from being posted on Where the Money Goes — payees' addresses and any transactions that are confidential, such as the names of child support recipients.

The bill also relieves the Comptroller's office and its employees of civil liability if confidential transactions post based on indicators agencies submit after Oct. 1. Instead, each data-entering agency and its employees are liable. The Comptroller's office will help with a secondary control — excluding typically confidential comptroller object codes from public posting for a limited time.

So, agencies need to make sure of one more thing — that their employees who determine and flag confidential information clearly and completely understand the requirements in the statute and their own liability. For more information, see Where the Money Goes Requirements (FPP G.004).

"The online state expenditure database is the first of several business intelligence tools coming from the Comptroller's office," Mathey says. "The business objects tool will soon offer those with proper security greatly enhanced functionality and access to more agency data."