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Don’t Shoot the Messenger: MPI Wants Pay Accuracy, Too

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

MEA-MFT’s Eric Feaver asserts in a recent open letter to me that the state employee compensation data at MPI’s opengovmt.org website is “…flawed and distorts the reality of state employee salaries and benefits.”  I think his frustration is misplaced.

While we simply presented data provided by the state and cannot independently verify whether it’s “flawed,” it’s also true that the data would be much more useful if it contained greater detail, omitted certain things, and provided more context. We’d like that, too.

MPI waited over two years, won a lawsuit, and paid the state over $1,000 to obtain the pay data used in opengovmt.org.  What you see is what we got, with one caveat.  The 189 Mbytes of data – equal to nearly 120,000 printed pages – provided by the state broke down pay items by earning codes, and our original intent was to present them that way.  But for reasons too technical to describe in 700 words, we simply were not comfortable with the validity of that breakdown.  So instead we went with the state-provided year-to-date total figure that included most benefits and other payroll costs.

Mea Culpa on us for not explaining that better.  But after months of delays and unexpectedly high fees from the state, we simply felt we had done the best that we could.  That being said, the best MPI can do from the outside is certainly not the best that can be done.

This point is illustrated by Mr. Feaver’s recitation of opengovmt.org’s shortcomings, with which I mostly agree.  Let’s take a look.

First, he points out that year-to-year pay increases due to job changes or as a result of going from a partial year’s work to a full year’s work are not highlighted and explained as such.  Yep.  The data we obtained does not include hire date or job changes, only current job and whether anything was paid that year.  Breaking that down further would require the state to create yet another custom report at our expense.  We had to draw the line somewhere on how much we were willing to pay the state to create electronic reports from their SABHRS personnel system, and that level of detail didn’t make the budget.  Why a system as comprehensive as SABHRS has to be reprogrammed at great expense to create custom reports with existing data is a different question altogether, and one we’d leave for the Department of Administration to address.

Next, Mr. Feaver points out that we did not disaggregate employee reimbursements for business expenses.  I agree completely that expense reimbursements are not pay and would have omitted them if it were possible without compromising other data.  But since we were unable to pick and choose pay codes we were forced to aggregate it all.  MPI was clear in our court case that we were not interested in reimbursements, but since the state mingled them with the full data set we could not confidently omit them.

Mr. Feaver also notes that we did not disaggregate employee benefits and severance payments.  Same answer as above.  We wanted to disaggregate and display individual types of pay (other than reimbursements) all along but could not confidently do it with the data set that we received.  Where we erred was in not making that tradeoff clearer in the website’s overview and methodology notes.

Finally, Mr. Feaver asserts that we have an obligation to verify the data (with whom he does not say since it came from and resides at a single source: The Department of Administration), and to suspend opengovmt.org until we make the changes he requests.  Well, that’s not going to happen.

What can and should happen, though, is working together as Mr. Feaver suggests to “…compel the state to create its own state employee pay site…”  Getting the state to post spending online is something MPI has worked for unsuccessfully since 2008.  State employee compensation would be a relatively simple place to start.

MPI and MEA-MFT working together on something like this would not only be a Disney moment with birds twittering and flowers blooming; it would also be a service to state employees and taxpayers.  If the state publishes a timely, credible, and comprehensive website: one that includes information currently at opengovmt.org while addressing Mr. Feaver’s concerns, the pay portion of MPI’s site will go dark the very next day.  We can pull the plug on it together.

 

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For Immediate Release

731 Words

 

Carl Graham is CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research and education center based inBozeman.

He can be reached at:

67W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B

Bozeman,MT59715

(406) 219-0508

cgraham@montanapolicy.org

Public Pay: A Lesson in Translucency

By: Carl Graham, CEO, Montana Policy Institute

Are taxpayers entitled to know how their money is spent, and to whom it is given? You’d think so. And so have a lot of judges. But in Montana results don’t always follow findings and converting even this modest proposition into a practical reality is not as simple as it might seem.

You may have read that Montana Policy Institute recently won a court battle to find out just how much we pay our state employees. But that victory for Montana’s taxpayers barely dented the wall that’s been erected between public information and the public. A penchant for secrecy combined with arcane accounting and budgeting systems allows basic information to be withheld regardless of the party in power or the virtuous noises of constitutional and statutory pronouncements. The tactics are consistent, the obfuscation relentless, and it’s all done on the taxpayer’s dime.

In our public pay example, one tactic we’ve seen is the argument that nobody has a right to know, or should even want to know, how much public employees are compensated. These are generally the same people who consistently (and sometimes correctly) bemoan “undeserved” executive bonuses or pay packages.

The difference, of course, is that nobody goes to jail for not kicking in their “fair share” of a bank president’s bonus. People do go to jail for not paying taxes. That creates a higher accountability standard for public dollars. Courts have consistently agreed that taxpayers’ knowing who benefits from their tax dollars is not only fair, but essential to accountable government.

Another and more insidious tactic is to hide data in a labyrinth of budgetary, accounting, and technological worm holes. Montana’s state government has literally hundreds of pay accounts, covering everything from basic hourly wages to, according to court records, horseshoe reimbursements.

These pay accounts are scattered around in budget and accounting spreadsheets that require professional-level accounting and database management skills to manipulate, or even to find. The result is that anyone – even a state legislator – who wants to see how much state employees are paid will only be provided an hourly rate; no overtime, bonuses, or even the number of hours worked. Which brings us to why we should care.

Montana has had a pay freeze in place for the past two years. And yet state agencies have provided millions of dollars in raises to selected employees. In addition, according data provided by the Legislative Fiscal Division, average employee pay outpaced inflation from 2004- 2010, and the number of state employees earning less than $25,000 per year decreased by nearly 60% while the number of those earning more than $100,000 increased by five times during that same period. Since anecdotal evidence suggests most employees are not seeing raises, we at MPI wondered who was benefiting from this pay migration and why. So we asked.

Unfortunately the information was hidden behind computer systems whose designers apparently didn’t contemplate people asking awkward questions, an open records law written when fax machines were cutting edge technology, and a bureaucracy that was unable or unwilling to overcome any of these inconveniences. Since the law doesn’t allow for penalties or even arbitration, we were forced to sue. And we won, although as of this writing we’re still awaiting the data.

And therein lies a lesson to all advocates of transparency and accountability in government, whether coming at it from the Right or the Left. Too often government transparency has been confused with government translucency, allowing only enough light through to see shadows of what’s truly underneath. We’ve seen it in Montana as lip service is paid to “right to know” laws while real, actionable information is hidden behind layers of red tape, obfuscation, and complexity. The system is fixed against those who write the very checks that the political and bureaucratic class cash.

These barriers to transparency and accountability exist at all levels of government. Lip service and selected data releases create the illusion of openness, but in truth are often merely shiny facades over a tangle of, well, we don’t know what’s under there. That’s the point. In our case public pay was the issue, but there are many more battles to be fought if we’re ever to go from the translucent to the transparent.

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For Immediate Release

704 Words

 

Carl Graham is CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit policy research and education center based in Bozeman.

He can be reached at:

67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

(406) 219-0508

cgraham@montanapolicy.org

 

New school spending data now on OpenGovMT website

Contact:

Carl Graham

President

Montana Policy Institute

(406) 219-0508

 

HELENA — A website that tracks budget data for Montana’s K-12 schools has now been updated with the most current information available on public spending.

Earlier this year the Montana Policy Institute launched www.OpenGovMT.org that allows people to view public information on state employee salaries and school financial data. The website has now been updated to include 2010 school spending.

“This is a great resource for all citizens concerned with how their money is spent, and keeping the data current is crucial,” said MPI President Carl Graham. “Ultimately, we hope government will take the steps to routinely achieve this kind of transparency. Until that happens, MPI is proud to bridge the information gap to provide this data to the public.”

The updated school spending information follows a request this year by the news organization Montana Watchdog for copies of the current superintendent contracts from all the school districts in the state. Twenty percent of school districts contacted did not provide a copy of the public document.

“This clearly highlights ongoing issues with transparency in the state of Montana that need to be addressed,” Graham said. “Public information is a misnomer if the public can’t actually get their hands on the information.”

Montana Watchdog is an independently operated news organization that was started as a project of MPI.

The latest data on school spending and more information on government transparency can be viewed at www.OpenGovMT.org. For an interview with Montana Policy Institute’s Carl Graham call (406) 219-0508 or email info@montanapolicy.org.

 

The Montana Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research center based in Bozeman. To find out more visit us on the web at www.montanapolicy.org.

Transparency 101

MPI shares voters’ concerns about government transparency, and whether or not those we entrust with our tax dollars will respect the people’s constitutional right to know how their money is being spent. We’re helping lay the groundwork for the state to create a budget transparency website that would place all state and local revenue and expenditure information online in a fully searchable format.

Several states and even the federal government have already taken significant steps in this direction.  In 2006, the federal government enacted a law that provides a road map for states on how to allow citizens to find out about government spending. The law was co-sponsored by Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Barack Obama (D-IL) and was passed unanimously by Congress. The new law creates a free searchable website that allows citizens to track the recipients of all federal funds.  In addition, eighteen states have passed legislation to create a search capability for their spending.  They all have different levels of capabilities and information, but here are some good examples:

Kansas: www.kansas.gov/kanview/
Missouri: www.mapyourtaxes.mo.gov
Arizona: www.aztreasury.gov/distributions.html
Kentucky: www.sos.ky.gov
Nebraska: www.nebraskaspending.com
 

The state of Montana has refused to create a spending portal during the past two legislative sessions, so MPI has started the process on our own.  We’ve created the site www.opengovmt.org, which has detailed district-by-district school revenue and spending data, as well state employee pay data.

Unfortunately, not only has the state refused to tell you where your money is being spent, but they’ve also put up roadblocks to us telling you.  They’ve refused to tell us, for example, how much each state employee is paid.  That’s pretty simple, and since they won’t provide that data we’re suing them for it.

The Center for Fiscal Accountability has created a rundown of current state transparency portals throughout the country.  Last updated in January 2010, it clearly shows what’s possible and what should be done.

In addition to state transparency portals, cities, counties, and school boards are also making their finances more open and accountable to taxpayers.  Here’s a partial list of local government sites:

Milwaukee County, WI: http://mcap.milwaukeecounty.org/MAP/Portal/ 
Douglas County Schools, CO: www.dcsdk12.org
Jefferson County Schools, CO: www.jeffcopublicschools.org/financial_transparency/reports.php

The majority of these states are getting this information to the taxpayers with little or no fiscal impact, i.e. this is a cheap and easy thing to do, and then been passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Similar bipartisan proposals are long overdue here in Montana.  Go to our BigSkySearch.info to see more great examples and answers to your questions (like how much does it cost?).

In addition to state-sponsored sites, several free market, accountable government organizations like MPI have put up web sites of their own that detail certain areas of state spending.  A couple notable ones are:

 

MPI has launched a school spending site of our own at www.SchoolsOpenMT.org.  This site is the most user friendly and comprehensive source of district by district school revenue and spending information available.  It’s nonjudgmental and easy to use, even allowing comparisons of up to five districts across a variety of categories.

Transparency isn’t expensive, either.  A study by the Mercatus Center found that costs are almost always overestimated and generally low.  We built www.SchoolsOpenMT.org for less than $20,000 and six months work.  Imagine what the state could do if it wanted to.

For more information about state spending transparency take a look at our Policy Note:

And, there’s a lot more at our transparency information site: BigSkySearch.info.

And finally, we’ll be evaluating bills that deal with transparency as they are introduced.  The idea isn’t to tell people whether or not to vote for them.  We want you to know what they say and whether they meet MPI’s goals for a more transparency and accountable government.

Bozeman Nonprofit Announces School Financial Transparency Web Site

Press Release

Today the Montana Policy Institute unveiled a comprehensive web site containing school financial data from across the state. The site, www.schoolsopenmt.org, provides historical revenue and spending information for every school district in the state, and allows Montanans to compare district revenue, spending, staffing, performance, and other measures across any five districts and with state averages.

The site’s goal, according to MPI president Carl Graham, is to provide citizens, opinion leaders, and lawmakers with a user friendly and comprehensive source of information on school revenues and spending from around the state. The site contains easy to use search tools and graphics that translate raw data from official but difficult to navigate sources into usable and understandable information. “The goal isn’t to pass judgment or change any minds” according to Graham. “We want to raise the level of debate about school spending by providing taxpayers with as much information as possible. Once they see the data they can decide for themselves what the numbers for their district mean.”

The site guides users through historical revenue and spending levels across a variety of categories, including salaries, administrative costs, and more. They can also compare revenues and spending categories along with achievement scores across five school districts of their choice along with state averages. All of the data was gleaned from official state sources over a six month period by scouring government web sites. But not all of MPI’s collection efforts were successful.

“We also wanted detailed district level spending so that we could see more than just how much was spent and actually provide taxpayers with a view of what their dollars were spent on” said Graham. Unfortunately, nearly 45% of all districts did not respond to MPI’s data requests. Another 45% or more responded that MPI could copy the documents in district offices or pay to have them copied and mailed – a challenging task with over 400 state school districts but within their rights under current law. And of the remaining districts fewer than 10% provided any usable data at all. The results of these requests are also at www.schoolsopenmt.org so that people can see how – or if – their district responded to data requests.