By Joby Richard / LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — The Republican push for more state spending transparency is back.
The Senate Finance Committee advanced a bill Wednesday to expand a state website to include spending by the judiciary, the Legislature and public universities along with the current data from agencies in the executive branch.
And in the House, Speaker Taylor Barras re-filed his bill to create a new website called the Louisiana Checkbook modeled on a more highly ranked site in Ohio.
Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, proposed the bill that the Senate committee sent to the floor without objection.
Both Ward’s and Barras’ bills failed earlier this year over concerns about price tags of $30 million or more for making the changes.
The Finance chairman, Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, said that the full Senate and House should decide how they want to apportion funds in the special session, which began Tuesday and is supposed to resolve a $648 million shortfall in the state budget by June 4.
Louisiana’s current spending website, the Louisiana Transparency and Accountability Portal, or LaTrac, was ranked seventh among the 50 states in 2016 in providing online access to spending data.
A non-profit group in Washington, D.C. rated the sites, and Ohio’s, ohiocheckbook.com, was ranked as the most transparent and easily usable one.
Barras, R-New Iberia, said earlier this year that Republicans wanted to create a similar Louisiana Checkbook site as a part of any deal to raise revenue to resolve the budget gap.
Barras’ bill passed the House 105-0 in February but did not make it out of the Senate Finance Committee due to the cost concerns. Ward said Wednesday that his bill “may be my fourth or fifth bite at the apple.”
Neal Underwood, deputy chief information officer for the state Division of Administration, explained that Wards’ proposals would include a broader array of data than Ohio’s site.
Ward’s bill even requires outside entities doing business with the state to disclose information, including the amounts of contracts, the purpose, and start and end dates.
State officials have estimated that it would cost $30 million just to better link the data systems of the executive agencies.
Underwood explained that the upgrades were approved 10 years ago but have not been funded. He said Louisiana is “close to setting the record for the longest implementation of any state government.”
He added that re-organizing the site, making it more searchable and adding graphics could be done for around $200,000.
Because one appropriation of $30 million seems unlikely, the Division of Administration would be open to dividing the total over three years. Six agencies now upload their spending data to LaTrac, and $8.5 million in the first year would enable eight more agencies to join.
The division would request $7.5 million in the second year to convert additional agencies and $14.5 million in the third year to bring larger departments like Health and Treasury onto the website.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, expressed frustration that the Department of Health would not be included on the site until 2021 since it represents half of the state budget.
Sen. Ward described adding the $30 million upgrade costs to the cost of his bill as “unfair.”. He projects that his bill would cost $350,000 for the first three years, and then between $220,000 and $230,000 a year, to add data from universities and other branches of government.
Alan Boxberger of the Legislative Fiscal Office explained that legislature and higher education institutions have different accounting systems than the executive branch agencies, and that would add to the costs. Representatives of the Judiciary have projected that their conversion costs alone could be as high as $25 million.
Hewitt said that without a clear timetable and cost estimates, “it feels like a black hole of money without gaining clarity about what we will get.”