NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 8, 2011

New website details state spending, employee pensions

By Colleen Quinn
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

BOSTON — Massachusetts taxpayers will soon be able see in far greater detail how much and where most state tax dollars are spent, according to state officials.

A new "open checkbook" website launched this week puts a larger portion of the state's finances online, including payroll information, retiree pension checks and vendor payments.

The site — www.mass.gov/opencheckbook — was created as part of a two-year project, a collaboration of the state treasurer's office, the secretary of administration and finance, the state comptroller, and the director of the recovery and reinvestment office. The site cost the state $1.8 million.

It includes a wide variety of searchable material — for instance, taxpayers can find out how much former city and school employees are making in pensions, how much state employees make and details on vendors who provide services to the state.

About 15 million payments made during the past two fiscal years are said to be listed on the site, with pie charts and percentage breakdowns. Payment information to more than 50,800 vendors will be accessible through a search engine that allows users to type in a name or department to have a peek.

Quasi-public agencies that do not receive direct state budget appropriations, such as Massport, MassHousing, the Convention Center Authority and education collaboratives are not included.

Spending by the MBTA, part of the state's consolidated transportation agency, is also not part of the site.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez said the MBTA and quasi-public agencies are not part of the state's accounting system, but he hopes to include them in future versions of the website.

Other spending deemed private, like payments to foster parents or some spending for ongoing investigations by district attorneys' offices or other law enforcement, will not be included on the site.

The website will detail spending by all agencies funded through the state budget, such as the Legislature, the Judiciary, sheriffs' departments, all constitutional officers — governor's office, treasurer, attorney general, auditor, secretary of state — as well as all executive offices. Gonzalez called the website "one step in a long line of steps to try to improve trust in state government."

"This is going to open up government in Massachusetts in a way it has never been opened up before," said Gonzalez, who added that the website would help state officials, as well.

"We have not had access to a tool like this before," he said.

The site will let users look at whom the state paid, what the state bought, and what individual departments spend their budgets on, according to state comptroller Martin Benison. Until now, that information was only available quarterly through the comptroller's office. The site will detail money allocated in the state budget, as well as federal grants received by Massachusetts. State officials demonstrated how browsers will be able to type in a state employee's name or a department and retrieve payment information.

"It is an extremely powerful and robust search tool that will make government more accessible," Gonzalez said.

Treasurer Steve Grossman, who pledged during his campaign for more transparency in government, said the site offered unprecedented access to state spending but added that it was just the start. Agencies tasked with creating the "open checkbook" website plan future versions with more detail, he said.

"Make no mistake about it. This is the taxpayers' money we are spending. They have a right to know how we are spending it and hold us accountable," Grossman said.

Website developers reached out to statewide advocacy groups for advice. MassPirg, Common Cause, the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the Pioneer Institute and the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation were consulted, Grossman said, adding that he expects the organizations to stay involved.

"As well defined as we thought this project was, we knew we needed help," he said. "And when we are not doing as well as we should be, they will tell us."

State finance officials anticipate some negative feedback from taxpayers. There is a button on every page that allows users to send questions or comments.

"Sure, there will be plenty of questions about why do you do this and why do you do that? And we will have to answer them all one by one," via email, Grossman said.