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Missoulian: Montana Checkbook, salaries go online

…The database won praise from Carl Graham, CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, which had been pushing the state to create online sites showing both expenses and salaries. His group successfully sued the state over the salary information during the Schweitzer administration and put the pay information on its website…

This story appeared in Lee newspapers across the state.

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Montana’s New Transparency Site

The state has finally put a checkbook and employee salaries online. Good for them. And I mean that. It’s a great first step and Governor Bullock and his new administration deserve great credit for doing it.

So now let’s make it much more useful with just a little more effort.

How do we do that?

First, expand the dates of data available on the online checkbook. While a snapshot is nice for looking at who sold the state, for example, copy paper last December, what’s really nice  to know is how much the state – or a department – spends on copy paper over time and who supplies it. That would allow departments and agencies to make comparisons prior to going shopping themselves, vendors to tailor their bids based on going rates, and citizens to compare how they spend their money to how the state spends it. All of those actions will save dollars by creating a more competitive and transparent process and give taxpayers assurances that that process is both fair and effective.

Next, expand the dates and include total compensation for state employees. There are two issues here. First, expanding the dates is important so that taxpayers can see compensation trends rather than snapshots in time. Why is this important? The recent pay freeze provides a perfect example. By looking at trend data on MPI’s own transparency portal, it’s clear that virtually every state employee was being paid more at the end of the ‘freeze’ period than before it, and that the largest increases occurred at the higher pay bands. You can only get that kind of information from trends, which requires multiple years of pay data available.

But even more importantly, as far as I can tell the state’s pay data only has hourly rates and does not include things like overtime, bonuses, and any number of other forms of compensation that state employees receive. That’ just dishonest. The state wants to know everything that you make – what’s on your W-2 – when you calculate your taxes. You should see everything they make when you pay those taxes. Now of course I’m not talking about travel pay and other straight reimbursements of direct costs associated with doing their jobs; but if it’s considered compensation by the Department of Revenue, it should be available to taxpayers.

So…it’s a good start but let’s not be satisfied with it just yet. The state could add immeasurable benefit to their site by expanding the dates back at least five years and including all employee compensation, not just basic pay rates. They created this site out of available funds, which is very commendable considering former Governor Schweitzer killed previous efforts by saying it would cost millions. So let’s invest a little more to increase the efficiency of our state government and our taxpayers’ confidence in it.

Oh, by the way. Did I mention the Montana University System isn’t even included in the discussion much less the data. Let’s see if they’re willing to step up before being prodded into it.

 

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