(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – Eighteen months after Gov. Jim Gibbons issued an executive order requiring the state’s financial information to be posted on an easily searchable website for the public, his quest for transparency remains a work in progress.
A significant improvement is expected in the next few days, however.
State Budget Director Andrew Clinger said Nevada’s transparency website has been up and accessible since January, but so far it contains budget and spending information only for fiscal years 2006 to 2008. It also now includes the 2009-11 legislatively approved budget.
The current website does have a searchable database, and taxpayers can delve into detail showing actual payments to vendors, he said. Searches can be performed by vendor name or by agency.
But financial data is still being loaded into the system for fiscal year 2009, which ended June 30, and for the current 2010 budget year. By the end of October, the site should have the current budget and spending information which will then be updated nightly as is done on transparency websites in other states to provide a real time look at spending, Clinger said.
With the implementation of daily updates to the database, Clinger said Nevada’s site will be about 70 percent complete. What will still be missing is data on contracts between state agencies and other entities. A section on the state payroll is also a work in progress.
Clinger said he believes Nevada’s transparency website is as detailed as those in other states, including Texas and Missouri, which are cited frequently as sites that are easy to navigate.
But having looked at the Missouri transparency site, Clinger is working with his staff to see if some of the basic elements that make the Missouri site easy to use can be incorporated in Nevada’s site.
“I think ours will be as good as Missouri’s,” he said. “But their layout is a little more user friendly.“
State Controller Kim Wallin, who is providing the financial data to the Department of Administration for posting, proposed the creation of a transparency website through her office, duplicating the site created by the state of Missouri, at a cost of about $250,000. Missouri was chosen because it uses the same financial accounting software as Nevada.
But the Gibbons administration decided to move forward on its own and has spent about $112,000 on the project so far.
Clinger said once the budget and spending information is current and available to the public, the agency will move on to the issue of posting contract information. The contracts portion will be done in this biennium, but the timing depends on the availability of funding, he said. It will cost about $63,000 to implement.
“We’re trying to find a way to use the resources we have in the current biennium to fund that piece,” Clinger said. “It is one of my top priorities.”
Information about the contracts the state enters into with other agencies and private firms is hard to come by for the general public. The Board of Examiners earlier this month approved more than 80 contracts worth millions of dollars, a process that occurs every several weeks for the board as a routine matter.
But even without the contract information, the transparency website has a lot of information, Clinger said.
“The governor’s budget and the legislative budget are there. And on the spending side, you can actually see payments down to vendors. We’ve got the top 500 vendors in terms of payments. You can do a search by agency. There is a lot of information.”
Sandra Fabry, executive director of the Center for Fiscal Accountability in Washington, DC, and an expert on transparency websites, called Nevada’s effort a step in the right direction. But she questioned the length of time it has taken to get the site ready for daily data updates and said it is not as easy to navigate as it should be.
“Given that web users tend to judge websites on their first impressions, the Nevada site lacks the clean and uncluttered design, and taxpayers unfamiliar with fiscal matters will have to figure out that in order to get to the expenditure database, they have to click on “Actuals” at the bottom of the page,” Fabry said.
Fabry said she is encouraged to hear that the Nevada site will soon have real time updates, and that a change in contracting procedures has been implemented in preparation for posting contract data on the website for public review.
“Ultimately, Nevada taxpayers will benefit when all government expenditures are subjected to their scrutiny via a comprehensive, yet user-friendly website, she said. “The potential for Nevada to deliver is certainly there, it just needs to be harnessed and made a priority.”
The Center for Fiscal Accountability is a project of Americans for Tax Reform, a national taxpayer advocacy organization.
Clinger said the website will also be the place to look for information about federal stimulus funds coming into Nevada.
Gibbons issued a proclamation in March of 2008 requiring the creation of a transparency website “as soon as practicable.”
Called the Nevada Open Government Initiative, the proclamation specified the need for an “easily searchable database of financial transactions related to government budgets and expenditures . . .”
When it is fully operational, Nevada will finally join many other states in posting much of its financial data on a website for public review. Inquisitive taxpayers, the media and others interested in how the state spends its tax dollars will be able to review the financial information as it is updated daily.
The length of time it has taken to get the transparency website fully operational has been criticized by some in Nevada, including the Nevada Policy Research Institute and Citizen Outreach. (Disclaimer: Citizen Outreach provides funding to the Nevada News Bureau.)
Steven Miller, vice president for policy at NPRI, said there is no reasonable explanation for why the site is taking so long to complete, other than the fact that it is not a priority for many of Nevada’s elected officials.
“A modest expenditure that potentially could save millions is a no-brainer,” he said.
R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, said the state’s transparency website, launched in Jan. 2007, has helped the state save money. By posting the data, the agency was not only able to provide public access to state financial information, but the posting provided an opportunity for officials to examine how the state was conducting its business, he said. The website has contributed to the implementation of various efficiencies that are saving Texas taxpayers more than $8 million, he said.
Clinger said the criticism for any delays are not warranted. The Department of Administration is working on the project using existing funds during a time of very tight budgets. No formal request was made to the Legislature to fund it. The target date for the 2009 and 2010 data posting was Oct. 1, which has been missed, but not by much, he said.
The website has been accessible and searchable since it was mentioned by the governor in his state-of-the-state address in January, Clinger said.