February 6, 2013

New state website shows taxpayers how dollars are spent

LePage touts transparency; research group says there's room for improvement

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Gov. Paul LePage wants you to know that Maine taxpayers spent more than $32,000 on food served last year at the Blaine House, the governor's mansion.

click image to enlarge

Gov. Paul LePage gestures while giving the State of the State address on Tuesday at the State House in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Maine Open Checkbook, an open-government website touted by the governor in his State of the State address Tuesday, is live and largely complete. It shows state expenses ranging from employee salaries to $106 in Blaine House purchases of canned fruits and vegetables.

In Tuesday's speech, LePage highlighted Republican-led campaigns to root out waste in two quasi-governmental agencies: the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine State Housing Authority.

"But we have more to do," he said. "I am pleased to announce that in the coming days, we will launch a new website that will enable Mainers to see how their precious tax dollars are being spent."

The site already has been praised by an analyst for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a pro-transparency consumer advocacy group. In a news release Wednesday, the group said the site brings an "unprecedented level of transparency" to Mainers.

However, the group also said there was plenty of room for improvement, such as identifying the recipients of $660 million in state grants in the 2012 fiscal year and recipients of certain tax credits. The group also criticized LePage for singling out the turnpike and housing authorities in his speech, because the website has little information on those office's finances.

Terry Brann, the state's controller and overseer of the website's creation, said more data will be added as confidential information is redacted from data sets and agencies are brought up to speed on the site. More than 5 million records were used to create the site, according to LePage's office.

Maine has been behind the national curve on using the Internet to promote transparency. PIRG gave the state an F grade in 2011 and a D- last year -- ahead of only 12 other states.

Brann said the grading drew LePage's ire.

"I remember one of my first notices from the governor was a copy of the article with a little note that said, 'We can do better than this,'" Brann recalled.

In 2011, a bill to establish a transparency website was introduced in the Legislature. The measure was killed, but Brann said his office was able to get the site up by drawing on the office's existing budget. The cost was $30,000, he said.

The governor has "always been supportive of transparency in government," LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said. "Unfortunately, it's a slow process when you're in government."

In a statement, House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said he hopes the site will be used "as a productive tool to help Maine people better understand how government works."

LePage campaigned on transparency, but many have criticized LePage for a lack of it -- especially in 2011, when he issued an executive order shielding a business advisory council he created from access laws.

That was criticized by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group with close ties to the governor. The group runs MaineOpenGov.org -- a site similar to the state's new one, although it's broader, with little focus on small-scale expenditures. Among other things, it tracks spending on salaries, welfare and kindergarte-through-grade 12 education, along with property tax data.

J. Scott Moody, CEO of the center, called the site "a great idea."

"We don't really see it as competition. It reinforces the message," he said. "I think anything that brings more transparency to government actions, the better it will be for Mainers."

Michael Shepherd -- 620-7015

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