By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
With nearly 5 million line items totaling more than $27.5 billion of checks written during the last six years, delving into Wyoming’s checkbook could be like drinking from a firehose.
But Cowboy State Daily has a thirst for understanding how the state spends taxpayer dollars. So it is working with the Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) to provide readers with a series of stories about the mountain of data released by the Wyoming State Auditor’s Office in February.
Over the next several months, Cowboy State Daily will provide periodic in-depth looks at spending by different state agencies as outlined in the data.
“It would be pretty difficult to eat a whole elephant in one sitting,” ESTA Researcher Kevin Lewis said. “So, we’re cutting up the elephant into pieces instead of trying to digest it all at once.”
Newly elected Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines provided American Transparency, aka www.OpenTheBooks.com, and ESTA with most of Wyoming’s checkbook after a years-long legal battle played out between the two non-profit organizations and Wyoming’s former state Auditor Cynthia Cloud.
“(American Transparency) has been requesting the checkbook since 2014,” Lewis explained. “And (ESTA) filed a joint request with them last year. In the end, we had to sue for the checkbook.”
After Racines released the requested data, the lawsuit was dismissed, he added.
Even with the checkbook in hand, reviewing the information is no simple task. While extensive, the checkbook does not provide complete data for every state agency’s expenditures, because some expenses such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments are confidential. Additionally, funding transfers between intergovernmental agencies don’t always appear as checkbook line items, Lewis said.
Without a full account of every dollar spent, it can be difficult to determine how an agency spends the bulk of its funding.
To complicate matters, the checkbook was provided in calendar years, rather than fiscal years, which is how agencies receive budgets. But with 10 years of research experience with the University of Wyoming and ESTA, Lewis said he has a plan.
“I’m going to reorganize it into fiscal years, so we can compare budgets to expenditures,” he explained. “Then, I’ll break it down into agencies, then series.”
Fleshing out those agencies’ budgets could take more public record requests, but the data is a “good step forward,” Lewis said. Once organized, Cowboy State Daily and ESTA can combine forces to focus on stories taxpayers might find interesting.
“There are lots of agencies of interest,” Lewis said. “The (Wyoming) Department of Education, the Tourism Office, the Business Council and community colleges to name just a few.”
The goal of these stories is to inform Wyoming residents about how their tax dollars are used so voters can decide if the state government is practicing good stewardship of statewide resources.
“We’re exploring how the state spends its money,” Lewis said. “Until you actually start digging in, there’s no way of knowing what you’ll find.”