In the name of fiscal transparency, the state on Wednesday launched a website that offers a searchable database of state spending that mirrors and even improves upon a similar database launched last year by the Yankee Institute for Public Policy.
A law passed unanimously last year by both chambers of the General Assembly and signed into law by former-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, ordered the creation of the site, transparency.CT.gov. That law mandated the state maintain an online searchable database of state expenditures.
The genesis of that measure was reactionary.
Last year, the conservative think tank Yankee Institute started CTSunlight.org, a database offering a glimpse into the state’s checkbook, showing all state expenditures including payroll. But as the website garnered thousands of visits in its first few months it caused angst for some lawmakers, who said it contained inaccuracies.
The data on the site was gathered via Freedom of Information Act requests through the state comptroller’s office and the Yankee Institute maintained that any inaccuracies on their website were due to errors in the information received from the state.
Still, lawmakers were uncomfortable with the idea of the conservative group being the primary source of budgetary information for the public.
“We should not leave that up to private not-for-profits that may have a political agenda,” said former-Rep. Demetrios S. Giannaros, D-Farmington, who is a professor at Hartford University.
Giannaros, the lawmaker who proposed the bill, said his wife’s salary was overstated on the site by $130,000. She is a part-time teacher at Tunxis Community College.
Giannaros could not be reached for comment. However, on Wednesday Yankee Institute Executive Director Fergus Cullen praised the website Giannaros’ bill created.
“The state’s site is clean, quick, and intuitive. I just did a couple searches and it was easy to use and came up with the information I looked for,” he said.
Despite claims last year that CTSunlight.org contained inaccuracies, Cullen said the searches he conducted on the state’s website mirrored the results he found on his.
“Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery,” he said.
Cullen noted that there is more information regarding state spending on the new site than is accessible on CTSunlight. For instance, state employee payroll searches on the institute’s website are limited to base salaries. The state transparency site also includes fringe benefits.
While searching for vendor information, Cullen said he had no problem finding out the state spent $119,116.14 last year on Poland Spring bottled water.
“We at Yankee were happy that the state decided to make this information available to the public online after we showed them it could be done,” he said. “Our only concerns were that the state site provide a similar amount of information as ours, do so in a timely manner, and that it not cost the state more than $100,000 to implement.”
A cost estimate attached to the bill speculated the website could be created using existing technology or upgrades already under way. As a result the state expected to incur little or no additional cost in launching the transparency website.
According to the site’s disclaimer page, the database largely utilizes data already stored in CORE-CT, the comptroller’s accounting and personnel system. Pension payment data, which is not processed through CORE-CT, is supplied directly from the comptroller’s office.
Information Technology Manager Susan Marsh said the project was built from existing equipment and one new server, which cost $13,000. Four people already working for the department worked on the project over the last six months, she said. That work is largely done now until this year’s data comes in, she said. But she said they will address problems in the database if they surface.
Last year, Yankee Institute Policy Director Heath Fahle said that if the state launched its own database CTSunlight would “happily go out of this business.” But Cullen said the site will remain active. Last year, it expanded to include municipal and school district spending data and still averages between 3,000 and 4,000 visitors each week, he said.