Website to give access to state financial information

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HARRISBURG -- State government will soon begin putting together a website that will provide one-stop access to state financial information.

Starting in 2013, residents will be able to search a single website and find out how much their senator's secretary earns, or the amount spent to repave a highway, what agency that money came from and who beat out their brother's construction firm for the contract.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, had identified this government transparency bill, which passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, as a priority earlier this year.

Sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, the act also is supported by Gov. Tom Corbett, who said in his campaign he would like Pennsylvanians to be able to search easily for financial information online.

The Governor's Office of Administration will be in charge of developing the database, called PennWATCH, which supporter Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania said will allow residents to monitor state government as a whole and individual programs they are interested in. Pennsylvania will be the 27th state to have such a database.

While Mr. Kauffman recognized that many Pennsylvanians either don't care to or don't have the time to keep tabs on the government on a daily basis, he said he expects a "substantial number of citizens," as well as journalists and special interest groups, to use the database.

Unless, of course, the database is not user-friendly -- and not in the "computer geeks ... user-friendly" kind of way -- he said.

Mr. Christiana said he is committed to making the database as easy to use as possible.

While the data that will be compiled on the site is already available from individual state agencies, Mr. Christiana said he worked on the legislation because constituents asked him to.

Mr. Kauffman added that various agencies provide information in different formats, often making it hard to compare. Mr. Christiana said the new system will display all data in the same format.

Compiling the information into one free-of-charge source "should make government more transparent" and will mean "taxpayers will finally get to see how their money is being spent and to provide a set of eyes on the taxpayers' checkbooks," said Matthew Brouillette, CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Mr. Brouillette, Mr. Kauffman and Stephen Herzenberg, an economist who works at the Keystone Research Center, agree that PennWATCH is a good first step to government transparency. Mr. Brouillette said he hopes the system will be adopted by boroughs and municipalities, while Mr. Herzenberg said he is looking for PennWATCH to provide more information.

In its first stage, PennWATCH will contain data showing how much federal or state money was given to a state agency or other entity, such as a local university or food bank. The names and addresses of the agencies and entities will be included, and the file will indicate where the money came from, what agency initiated the funding and the fiscal year to which the money was appropriated.

State employee salary information also will be more readily accessible: The number of people employed by each state agency will be updated monthly and include employee names, positions and salaries.

The public will also be able to look up how much state and federal revenue has been deposited in the state Treasury each month. State tax revenue will be reported by specific tax type, and non-tax revenue will be reported in broader terms.

Agencies are required to provide all information and vouch for its accuracy and completeness. Links to each agency's website also will be included.

Craig Staudenmaier, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said a provision keeping information private that is already exempt under the Right-to-Know law will prevent personnel and health files, as well as certain investment records for retirement funds, out of the public eye.

Compiling this information is expected to cost $847,000.

Acknowledging that the site does not legally have to be open until January 2013, Mr. Brouillette said he would like to see the site rolled out "as soon as possible" and hopes the office is able to open the site before the legally binding deadline.

By 2015, data will be added to show how government programs measure up to their expected performance. A description of each program also will be included.

Obtaining the software to measure the performance data is expected to cost $1.4 million. Once developed, the site as a whole will cost about $200,000 a year to run.

Mr. Herzenberg said the second phase of the project is essential because "you don't just want a list of organizations that got checks, you want to know more about how money was used so that you can evaluate whether it was used well."

Individuals and organizations who monitor this state data "make an important contribution to keeping an eye on" the government, Mr. Kauffman said.

Sari Heidenreich is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.


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