State launches website to help taxpayers track spending
State officials hope a new website that details state spending can help West Virginia taxpayers see how their money is spent, and help the state pull up its grades in online transparency.
State Auditor Glen Gainer and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, who is acting as governor, unveiled the website, www.TransparencyWV.org, at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday.
Gainer, whose staff developed the site, said the project was spurred by a failing grade that West Virginia received in March on a transparency scorecard designed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a national, non-partisan watchdog group.
"We're hoping that it provides an easily understood, high level of detail of how state government is operating from a fiscal standpoint," Gainer told the Gazette.
The website is divided into three main sections: state revenue collections, the budget, and spending. People will be able to find and download information on each state agency's spending.
The auditor's staff said they modeled the site after those of states that earned A's in the U.S. PIRG report, such as Texas.
West Virginia and nine other states failed the PIRG standards. The group said that the Mountain State lacked a "checkbook-level website" showing government expenditures.
U.S. PIRG did not look at VISTA, a database run by the auditor's office that discloses West Virginia's public employee compensation and payments to vendors, Gainer said. Instead, the group examined the state's Purchasing Division website, which contains state contracts.
Other state financial information, such as details of state tax credits and federal stimulus spending, was available online, but was scattered among different agencies' websites.
"In reality, a lot of this information we had [online]," Gainer said. "It just was not brought together on a single website."
The new site will give people "more centralized access" to state financial records, Tomblin said.
It will be updated every evening, Gainer said: "That's as up to date as we can go."
Making a state spending website user-friendly is as important as posting lots of information, said Phineas Baxandall, a senior analyst for tax and budget policy at U.S. PIRG and a co-author of the transparency study.
"There's just such a sea of information," he said, "that really a big part of access is searchability."
Many states are trying to make their sites better, Baxandall said.
"There are a lot of states that are trying to improve because they're hearing from the public that the public wants it," he said. "They feel like budget choices are getting harder and harder."
The auditor's office hopes that the state's future Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP) -- a computer system that will link all state agencies' financial data -- will improve the website's technical capabilities, said Gainer spokesman Justin Southern. The state is now bidding out the ERP project.
Gainer hopes that many people will find the website helpful, from educators who are teaching civics lessons to citizens who are curious about how the state is spending their tax dollars.
"We want to give the people a yardstick on which to hold us accountable to," Gainer said. "At the end of the day, everything costs something, and they'll be able to see what every components of government costs and draw their own conclusions."
Reach Alison Knezevich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1240.