For the Good of Illinois

Casper Star Tribune: Transparency Before Taxes

December 1, 2017 08:00 AM
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Andrzejewski: Transparency Before Taxes

Nov 28, 2017

Tracking government spending shouldn’t require a search warrant.

Our non-partisan, nonprofit organization at OpenTheBooks.com recently filed open records requests with each of the 795 units of government in Wyoming, asking them to provide copies of their checkbook expenditures, public employee salaries and pension payouts. While we’ve received some responses, too many of our requests have gone unanswered.

The Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. gave Wyoming an ‘F’ in transparency. Our goal is to move the state’s failing grade to an ‘A.’ Existing Wyoming law, the state constitution and the federal constitution all support our effort to capture a complete record of public spending in Wyoming. Our goal: post every dime of Wyoming government spending online, in real time.

So far, the Wyoming transparency project has had a lot of success. For example, at OpenTheBooks.com, citizens can find the salaries of nearly 33,000 public employees working for state, university and local units of government. We’ve also posted the salaries of 8,200 educators in school districts and 500,000 checkbook transactions from 120 municipal bodies.

The University of Wyoming promptly and efficiently provided public employee salaries and vendor checkbook spending. Gov. Matt Mead’s division of Human Resources easily provided salary records of all state employees.

However, after five months of pleasantly persistent emails, regular mail service and phone calls, our open records requests were ignored or unlawfully rejected by too many units of Wyoming government – including 30 of 48 school districts.

Here are some of the public records we haven’t received:

  • Wyoming state checkbook – The State Auditor denied our request and refused to produce the last three months of spending already loaded online or provide the backup data. After 90-days, the record is purged.
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  • Retirement system of Wyoming – The General Counsel rejected our request for the retirement pension payouts. Taxpayers fund and guarantee these pensions. They deserve to know who receives how much, after working for which unit of government, for what length of time, and in which position. Denying our request is in contravention of established Wyoming open records statutes.
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  • Transparency taxes – Some counties want to charge a ‘transparency tax.’ For example, we’ve been asked to pay $3,400 or $1,600 for copies of checkbook spending!

What is the problem? We’ve only asked for raw data. Our team has the capacity to post all public spending online and in our OpenTheBooks mobile app. If Wyoming public bodies complied with the law, it would take us less than 30 days.

In our quest to post every dime taxed and spent at every level of Wyoming government, we applaud the 227 municipal, state, school districts and other local units of government that have already produced full records of their salaries or checkbook spending.

Still, hundreds of Wyoming units of government have not yet complied with basic open records law. Our experience begs the question: Can the government circumvent or outright violate open records law or charge draconian fees so they can continue operating in the dark? Does the rule of law only apply to we the people in the private sector?

In Wyoming, it’s too difficult to access government records. State law does not set a deadline for responding to a request nor designate a system for facilitating open records compliance. Even in Illinois – the ‘super bowl of corruption’ – data must be provided within five business days!

Why did Wyoming taxes fund $35,000 for a magician at the Department of Education STEM conference in 2015; fund $15,000 for a documentary on Dutch Hop Dance; or fund $60,000 for a no-bid contract to "increase awareness" in the state’s child support division?

Wyoming taxpayers deserve information and answers. It’s time to open the books at every level of government across Wyoming.

The people of Wyoming must understand one big idea: In God we trust, but those with government responsibilities we must audit. After capturing and posting online all government spending, there will be endless opportunities for oversight.

Remember, it’s your money. You have a right to know how it’s spent.

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