Our Views: State cracks OpenBook on its spending

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

After repeated delays, the state has opened the book on its spending habits with a new website appropriately called OpenBook Wisconsin.

It’s great to see the website, openbook.wi.gov, which helps take the veil off state government spending. It has, however, a long way to go to be fully useful.

State lawmakers and governors have long promised transparency. An earlier website, sunshine.wi.gov, lists some spending, but information is difficult to find and use. A study two years ago ranked Wisconsin as the 10th-worst state for providing information about how and where state money is spent.

The state budget approved in 2011 was supposed to change all that through OpenBook Wisconsin. Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch wrote in January 2012 that he expected the site to be launched by the end of that year. More delays ensued, and Huebsch blamed “aged and disparate” agency records systems. He offered no new launch date. Public confidence dwindled, and rightly so. Wisconsin was one of just five states to earn an “F” for transparency from the U.S. Public Interest Group.

OpenBook gives the public the ability to dig through more than 25 million records on spending for goods and services dating to July 2007. That’s remarkable.

The site lists spending by state agencies, the Legislature, courts and the UW System. However, it lacks specifics about spending, reducing its usefulness. For example, it lists a UW System payment to Janesville’s J.P. Cullen & Sons of $3.7 million on July 3, 2012. For what? “A capital improvement,” is the only explanation.

The site is supposed to list every expense of more than $100. It also is supposed to offer specifics of payments and include copies of contracts, grant information and details about state employee salaries and benefits. The department promises all of this will come.

The public should be tired of the excuses and barriers to full transparency about how our tax dollars are spent. By law, Wisconsinites have a right to this information. The sooner all of it is available, the better.

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