Louisiana’s budgets now online

Craving a look at the Medicaid disbursements for Fiscal Year 2009? Wondering who’s on the consultant payroll for the Recovery School District? Trying to find out how much the Used Motor Vehicle Parts Commission spent on office supplies?

That kind of data is already a public record. But it is now on the Internet, thanks to a Jindal administration initiative to provide more public access to budget numbers.

The site is http://doa.la.gov/latrac.

Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis said the new site puts into public view a lot of data that would otherwise be difficult to find. While parts of the budget are still being translated into the LaTrac site, over time it is supposed to be one of the most comprehensive sites of its type in the country. “This will cause Louisiana to be seen as a leader in transparency,” Davis said.

The site is not yet complete by a long shot. Davis said a lot of work remains to be done, in large part because of the complicated technical task of gathering and translating data from the numerous state computer systems. Davis said the state hopes to achieve a system with real-time data and search functions, but the system is far from perfect yet. Eventually, for example, the system would include budgets of all state colleges, but for now only LSU System campuses are included.

Salaries of only the top political appointees in each state department are included now, but more detailed information will come later, Davis promised.

As Davis said, the virtue of the site is that anyone with Internet access can take a look at how taxpayer money is being spent. “It’s a wealth of information that we are making readily available to the public,” she said.

At the same time, information of this nature is complex to interpret. There can be whistleblowers who pore over the LaTrac data and find instances of wasteful spending. But practically speaking the data is most useful to people who have some knowledge of an agency’s operations and some reason to believe a specific expenditure is questionable.

Davis added, though, that LaTrac – uniquely among the states – will link the budget data to performance measures for each agency. That will provide people with a measure for whether the taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

The new site is a substantial expense because of the complexity of building it. When it is fully rolled out, it should be helpful, at the least, in telling people what state government does with tax dollars.

– The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.