State spending now an open book
Critics were quick to carp that OpenBook.wi.gov, Gov. Scott Walker's new website tracking state spending, was delayed for a year and is still not fully functional. One Democratic lawmaker said “it's had more problems than the Obamacare website.”
Others may want to cut the governor some slack. The site, which tracks state agency payments from mid-2007 through the end of 2013, isn't perfect. But it is a neat tool — providing, as Walker says, “greater access and transparency in our expenditures as a critical component of fostering (public) engagement.”
Searches can be done for each fiscal year by agency, category or vendor. It takes only a moment, for instance, to find that $243.8 million was spent by state agencies in the category of “Fuel and Utilities” in fiscal 2013, which ended June 30. Another $112 million went for “Maintenance and repair.” Good to know.
The site also shows that vendor spending by the state Department of Health Services, which in December 2011 was criticized by the Legislative Audit Bureau for its prodigious use of outside contractors, has apparently declined. In fiscal 2012, DHS spending on all goods and services topped $260 million. In fiscal 2013, that fell to $223.6 million, practically chump change.
OpenBook lets users suss out other expenditures of interest. For instance, did you know that state agencies have paid more than $900,000 since mid-2007 to Kalahari Resorts, a waterpark and convention center in the Wisconsin Dells? You do now.
Half of this total was from state universities since mid-2012, the oldest detailed expense data for University of Wisconsin System institutions now on the site. A coding key obtained from UW officials reveals that the biggest user by far was the UW-Stevens Point, which spent more than $275,000 at the waterpark resort.
UW-Stevens Point officials say the resort is used for continuing education conferences their campus cannot accommodate. Program manager Wayne Sorenson says these conferences help public and private sector workers do their jobs, “and a skilled workforce strengthens our economy.”
Plus, the water slides are a blast.
UW institutions also spent more than $90,000 over the past 18 months on four professional state sports teams: The Green Bay Packers and the Milwaukee Brewers, Bucks and Admirals. Most was for “Advertising and promotions” by UW-Green Bay and UW-Milwaukee. It's not clear from the OpenBook site what this entails.
And then there's the large number of payments to retail outlets that sell alcohol. A search for businesses with words like “liquor” “wine” and “spirits” in their names turned up more than $300,000 in expenditures, including about $200,000 by UW institutions since mid-2012.
Some are categorized as “Materials for resale,” which UW System spokesman David Giroux says were likely buys by campus catering organizations. Others were flagged as “Supplies-food (for humans).”
It's good to know the state isn't buying beer for horses, like Toby Keith.
Giroux says UW employees can buy alcohol for entertainment purposes only with non-state funds, like private donations. This is not something that can be checked on OpenBook Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Natural Resources has paid more than $10,000 to places with names like “Kelley's Discount Liquor Store.” A check by agency officials found that most of this money went to pay these businesses for conducting deer, turkey and bear registrations, and none for partying.
One agency that admittedly purchased alcohol with state funds for human consumption is, ironically enough, the Department of Transportation, which has spent $4,191 in recent years at liquor stores, for “Supplies-food (for humans).”
DOT spokeswoman Peg Schmitt says this money went to buy bulk alcohol for training law enforcement on breath alcohol tests. The alcohol, she adds, “is kept in secure storage until it is needed for training programs.”
Editor's note: More information about tools for gathering public information is available at “Be Your Own Watchdog,” on the Center's website.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.