In the mid 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s attitude when dealing with Soviet leadership during arms negotiations was exemplified by his use of the English translation of a famous Russian proverb:
"Trust, but verify."
Now, Louisiana residents who doubt the spending practices of government will soon have the opportunity to follow Reagan’s advice. With the soft launch this month of the initial version of the Louisiana Checkbook website, taxpayers are getting their first clear look at how the state is spending their dollars – with some caveats, for the time being.
The legislation that brought the Checkbook site to life was the culmination of individual efforts by three Republican state legislators – House Speaker Taylor Barras, Rep. Barry Ivey and Sen. Rick Ward.
With the site now live, Watchdog.org reached out to each of the three sponsors for a series of interviews about how Louisiana Checkbook came to be and what it means for the future of transparency and governance in the state.
Regaining Voters' Confidence
One thing all three sponsors agreed upon wholeheartedly when discussing the Checkbook site is that it marks an important step in efforts to restore the trust of voters shaken by decades of corruption and allegations of waste at various levels of government.
"I think, as we continue to talk about the governor's requests for additional revenue, but trying to get the public, and actually a lot of our legislators, comfortable that we just weren't dumping money into a pond … that [the Checkbook legislation] worked hand in hand" with the budget discussions, Barras said. "As we were talking about revenue development, that if you've gotten to a budget discussion, it would be certainly good for the public and the legislators to have a clear understanding of where that information is."
Ivey talked about the obstacles faced by legislative efforts in 2017 that sought to raise funds for much-needed infrastructure improvements across the state. With a legacy of massive cost overruns for construction efforts such as the TIMED projects, voters have little appetite to hand over their hard-earned dollars while simultaneously wondering how they’ll actually be spent.
"Taxpayers, rightfully so, don't trust us with their their taxes," he said. "We’ve been irresponsible in the past, and we have bridges that probably are just miles in the wrong spot, billion dollars [overspent], because politics has played roles."
Ward discussed how much of the data on the Checkbook site is already publicly available, but it might not be presented in a way that’s useful to anyone outside of government itself.
"There are other [sites] out there where people say, ‘Oh, well, look that information’s available," he said. "Yeah, maybe, but for most people, it's so complicated in how you get that information that they get frustrated almost immediately and stop trying."
Breaking Things Down
One thing visitors to the current Checkbook site should keep in mind is that there’s still a lot of information missing. The agencies of the state’s executive branch are in the midst of converting to a new internal software system, and those that have not yet completed the transition aren’t able to provide the level of detail that’s desired at this point.
"It'll be some time before every agency is to the point of being fully operational, I guess, for lack of a better term," Ward said. "I think sooner than later, all agencies will be where you can dive down to a certain level of detail in their expenditures. But until then, until all the systems are upgraded, we’ll be a little bit hamstrung in terms of the website being able to display the more detailed approach that some of the agencies that have been updated already are able to do."
According to a document posted to the Checkbook website, there are eight agencies currently providing the detailed level of information, including the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The remaining agencies are listed in three waves, scheduled to go online in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
And even for those that are feeding their data directly into the site, not all the features have been built yet.
"[As] an example, if there's an expenditure for a particular vendor who is operating under state contract … it is not built out yet, but the check, your voucher image, that should be displayed eventually [and] there should be a hyperlink with a contract number there," Ivey said of future planned updates. "It should link back to the actual contract. So people can from that one spot, instead of having to go look it up on a separate portal, they can just have a hyperlink right here on that check image and be able to go see the actual contract that check was drawn from."
For Barras, one of the key selling points of the Checkbook format is the site’s ability to generate visually understandable graphics at the click of a button, all using the latest data straight from the state agencies.
"Our fiscal offices do great work, but to be able to create that and communicate it quickly and efficiently is cumbersome for any government to produce," he said. "When you want to look at the salary levels of one particular department, or the contracts of one particular department … it is information that would take you hours to determine which you're looking for, but also when you got it, it wouldn't necessarily be in a format that you could clearly decipher. And I think that's where the graphics and the charts will become so valuable for the public."
Building Better Budgets
After a budget battle that lasted through three special sessions and one abbreviated regular session this year, Barras, Ivey and Ward are hopeful that when Louisiana Checkbook is fully rolled out, its status as a one-stop shop for all the state’s financial data will play a role in helping avert such disputes.
During this year’s budget debates, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards argued that the state’s budget deficit was hundreds of millions of dollars more than what many Republican legislators asserted it was. This created arguments that were as much about whose numbers should be used as they were about what those numbers meant.
If Louisiana Checkbook had existed this year, perhaps some of those disagreements could have been avoided.
"For those members that sit on our budget committee, it would be a great education to be able to use Checkbook to educate those legislators prior to the budget being presented every January," Barras said. "[And] for those members that aren’t on the budget committee, this will be really, really valuable, because they don't necessarily have that access to all the debate and presentations that are made to the budget committee."
Ivey suggested that in instances where state government feels it has to go to taxpayers to ask for new funding, the Checkbook site would be a great asset in convincing everyone that the need is real – or, perhaps, realizing that the need is not real after all.
"By engaging the people, the taxpayers of Louisiana, I believe they can help us identify waste, fraud and abuse in the system," he said. "And if they’re able to go through a budget and see where the money's going, if they care to go to that effort, then they get also, all of a sudden, to be a little more informed, see that even if they don't agree with raising taxes, which is certainly within their right, they can at least maybe appreciate the level of difficulty it is to have to make hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts. It's not as easy as some people portray."