Just in time for Independence Day and antigovernment “tea party” protests, two public-policy groups have launched a website that sheds light on how taxes are raised and spent.
While the two organizations often take opposing stances on the issues, “We both understand the importance of having good information and good data for the public,” says Jack Hoffman, senior analyst at PAI. “The collaboration has been terrific.”
John McClaughry, president and founder of EAI, concurs. “Neither of us ruled anything out the other wanted to include,” said McClaughry. “This is really straightforward and factual information.”
Vermont Transparency is a dream come true for policy wonks as well as professional and citizen journalists. The website makes it easy to delve into the nitty-gritty of state revenues and spending, both current and historical. It also lets you find out what state employees earn: You can search by job title or an individual’s name.
Visitors will also find links to federal stimulus spending, state economic development credits, rainy day funds, school district spending and outcomes, and municipal web pages.
In the coming weeks, the groups will add to the site, allowing people to search state payments to vendors and delve into budget details from 20 years ago.
“I’m quite sure that, when we’re done, as it’s still a work in progress, this will be the only place in the State of Vermont where you will be able to get a 5- 10-, and 20-year history of the state budget in basically one document,” said Hoffman.
Budget information provided by the state had to be stitched together electronically, as the titles of budget line items changed over time, said Hoffman. The state’s current accounting system doesn’t easily track how much government spends. In other words, you can find out what it spent on an item, from whom it bought the item, and what it was used for — just not all in one search. Vermont Transparency brings all that info together, Hoffman added.
It took time to merge so many different databases. And money: In all, the site cost about $75,000 and took a year to develop. The State Policy Network — of which EAI is a member — kicked in $50,000. Similar sites in New York and Maine have cost as much as $300,000 to build.
While the website’s primary focus is making sense of fiscal data, it’s also a one-stop shop for other info about state and local government. The site offers a guide to tracking roll-call votes of state legislators, for example, and users can find out how to track the progress of bills on the legislature’s website. There is also a guide to Vermont’s education finance laws, links to state statues, summaries of new legislation and the Vermont Constitution.
Making public data more accessible is a goal of the project, and the groups hope to hear from folks about ways to improve the site over time.
“The information on our website is all public data, but it is often difficult to find and not always easy to use,” said Hoffman, the site’s project director. A former journalist, Hoffman was the longtime bureau chief of the Vermont Press Bureau in Montpelier and has written extensively on state government and school financing issues.
McClaughry comes from a different writing tradition. “Some of the memos I wrote had to be sanitized somewhat,” McClaughry joked. “I’m prone to rhetoric that would have people finding out why government is wasting their money rather than spending to advance necessary social progress.”