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Transparency

Five questions with Public Records Ombudsman Ruth Van Mark

in News/Transparency
public documents
2253

A Torrington native and longtime congressional staffer has taken her new duties in a state office created to mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Ruth Van Mark has been in the office of public records ombudsman, created by legislation approved by the Legislature earlier this year, since her appointment to the post by Gov. Mark Gordon on Sept. 30.

Van Mark returned to Wyoming in 2012 after serving in a number of positions in Washington, D.C., including stints as the legislative director for U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and as the minority staff director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In an interview with the Cowboy State Daily, Van Mark discussed, among other things, her vision for the office and how she will work to resolve disputes that sometimes arise when government entitles are asked to release documents.

Cowboy State Daily: What do you see as the main objective of your office?

Van Mark: 

Well, when the governor interviewed me, he told me in no uncertain terms that he wants transparency. And that he wants the exemptions from the law … interpreted as narrowly as possible. Because he wants as much information available to the Wyoming public as possible and as quickly as possible.

So I see my job as carrying out that mandate. And setting it up to make it as easy as possible for people to contact the office, get us the information they need and access the information.

So one of the things we are doing to accomplish that is we are working, even today, on a button on the governor’s website that people can go to and hopefully get all their questions answered on how they can get a public record. 

We’ll help direct them to the right agency. If they’ve contacted the agency and they have a problem, they can initiate a complaint with the ombudsman and we’ll respond to it.

Cowboy State Daily: How do you plan to accomplish that?

Van Mark: 

I think it’s going to really depend on what comes to the office, because in addition to educating agencies on what it is the public records act requires of them, I can’t go in and just pick records and say ‘I’m going to make this public.’ 

So I have to wait until a citizen comes to me and says ‘I’ve requested this information, I believe it falls within the parameters of the public records act, I’m having problems.’ And then we can get to work and do that, and make it as available as possible. 

So it’s a little difficult right now to say how we’re going to do it, we’re just going to have to … do it. So what I’m trying to do now is establish procedures.

On our website, we’re going to try to make it as user friendly as possible. We ask maybe somewhat leading questions: ‘Have you contacted the agency that holds the record? If you haven’t, this is how you do it.’

But the act is very clear that at any point in the process, the public can come to the ombudsman or the courts. So I can’t really say ‘You can’t come to me first,’ but I believe it will probably work better for the person requesting the information if they go to the agency that holds it first.

And I will give you one example. (It) was a simple little thing. (A woman) had contacted the agency that had the record and she hadn’t heard back from them. So I just called them and said ‘Hey, such and such has asked for such and such, could you give them a call?’ They called her right away, she got the information she wanted, she was happy. So it can be as simple as that. 

Cowboy State Daily: What do you see as the main obstacles to the release of information?

Van Mark: 

I’ve been talking to some of the agencies and asking them ‘What are some of your frustrations?’ I believe it’s not that they don’t want to release the documents, it’s that they have time constraints on them and (restraints on their) resources. The biggest concern people are going to have is complying within the deadlines established in the law. 

But reading the law, it says you have to acknowledge (a request) within seven days and deliver within 30 days unless you contact the individual requesting the information and you work out a time frame.

This is still Wyoming, I think people are reasonable, I think that if agencies get in contact with the people who contacted them and they feel like they can’t produce the information within the prescribed time frame, they can work out a deal with the requester. And if that can’t happen, they can come to me and I’ll try to work out a deal that both can live with.

Cowboy State Daily: How will you handle disputes over document releases?

Van Mark: 

One of the things I learned working 30 years on Capitol Hill in D.C. was how to bring two warring sides together, come up with something you can live with.

My last position on Capitol Hill was as the minority staff director of a Senate committee and in order for that committee to do its work, both sides of the aisle had to work together and we had to move forward. Sometimes, you have to put aside your emotions and see what the goal is and find the sweet spot to getting there. 

This is building on that, where if a constituent or requester has requested information and the agency says ‘No, we don’t have to deliver that to you under the public records act,’ the first thing I have to do is determine what exactly the public records act says with respect to the request. And then from that point on, try to mediate a third path, so to speak, so that both sides can move forward. 

Of course, there may come a time when it’s not possible and either the requester has to go to court or … give up on it. 

The goal of this office is to always come up with a satisfactory result that both sides can live with. We want to avoid the court as much as possible.

Cowboy State Daily: Do you anticipate “growing pains” with this office?

Van Mark: 

Oh, yes. And in fact, I have a couple people around the state I want to beta test my website on. Because that’s going to be one of the things that we’re going to put it out and I’m going to think ‘This answers every possible question that someone could raise.’ But sure enough, it won’t. And so that will be one thing that we’ll continually update and revise.

Certainly … the legislators are already looking at some potential amendments to the statute, so we’re going to have to incorporate anything they decide to change into the website or into how we interpret what’s going on.

And there’s going to be things that come up that I just can’t for the life of me imagine right now. And we’re just going to have to adapt and move forward.

So, yeah, there’s going to be growing pains big time. Anytime you establish an office from scratch, that’s just a given. 

Hopefully what we’ll do, though, is have enough procedures or plans in place that we’ll be able to just take that and run with it and not have to worry about re-doing the whole organization, but we’ll be flexible enough to accommodate changes.

State auditor’s transparency website “jumping off point” for detailed records requests

in News/Transparency
Transparency
1852

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily 

Many Wyoming residents want state government to be more transparent, but few can agree the best way to go about it.

“When we talk about transparency, if you ask 10 people, you’ll get 10 definitions,” Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines said. “The one thing we’ve heard consistently is folks want to see the (state’s) checkbook online.”

Racines took office in January as a six-year legal battle between the state auditor’s office and transparency groups regarding access to the checkbook came to a close. After campaigning on the promise of transparency, Racines followed through by releasing six years of government-spending data almost immediately upon entering office. Fulfilling the request for years past, however, was just the start. Racines said she wanted the checkbook to be readily available for every Wyoming resident to easily peruse on a whim.

“We’re trying to be proactive,” Racines explained. “We wanted it to be on the internet, but we don’t have money in the state coffers to develop a big, expensive transparency platform.”

So she put her IT team to task: build a website that can be easily navigated, simple and an effective doorway for future information requests. 

“This is certainly an extra ask on their plate,” Racines said. “We have a five-member IT team, and they started building the website in January in addition to their full-time duties.”

Wyopen.gov went live July 17. 

“They really came to the table with an awesome product,” Racines said. “And we did it at essentially no extra cost to the taxpayer.”

By following the link, visitors are greeted with a simple white screen, minimal text, a “search transactions” button and links to overall expenditures for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The website’s face is uncluttered with gratuitous design elements, unnecessary images or the lengthy mission statements so commonly found littered across “dot gov” sites these days. As for usability, the search function has several fields to narrow down the user’s results, but only two fields need to be filled in for the engine to work.

Searchable fields include:

  • Start and end dates: Format sensitive;
  • Agency: Multiple choice;
  • Expenditure category: Multiple choice;
  • Description: Multiple choice;
  • Vendor name: Partial names are searchable, and;
  • Location: City, state or zip code.

“We talked to different user groups and tried to anticipate how citizens would think when they want to see data,” Racines said. “When we query data on the back end, it’s based on parameters they don’t necessarily know, like the (category) codes.”

After entering a search request, the user is presented with a spreadsheet containing basic data related to their search, which includes:

  • Date of payment;
  • Agency: The government agency making the payment;
  • Vendor name: The recipient of the payment;
  • Expenditure category: What account the check was billed to;
  • Description: Basic reason for the payment;
  • State: The state the check was sent to, and; 
  • Payment amount: The check total.

The information presented is only the bare bones of a checkbook, and in some cases, it may seem confusing. For instance, one expenditure category may be “In-State Bd/Comm Travel Reimbursements,” (In-state Board/Committee Travel Reimbursements) and its description could be “In-State Bd/Cm M&IE,” which can read like techno-babble for the casual user.

“This website will not fulfill every public records request, and we’re totally aware of that,” Racines said. “Our hope is when future requests get to us, the website will help them be a lot more dialed in.”

One of a government’s primary investments in fulfilling an information request is searching for the data requested, she explained. Broad requests require more time to fill, so providing the requestor tools to narrow the request could help the auditor’s office reduce fulfillment times.

“This is a really good jumping off point for our heavy-duty users,” Racines said. “We could drown this website in information, but I feel like that would be a disservice to the public.”

Website visitors interested in obtaining more information for any line item are encouraged to contact the auditor’s office. A dropdown menu on the top right side of the website lists two phone numbers and two emails for such requests.

While the website does contain a large chunk of the checkbook, it is not a complete ledger of every dollar spent by state government.

“There are some line items we are not allowed to release by state statute,” Racines explained. “Private citizen information, direct assistance payments to beneficiaries, some law enforcement agency expenses and victim payments are a few examples.”

With three years in the backlog, she said the auditor’s office is working to keep the information as up to date as possible.

“Initially we had planned to upload info quarterly, but now we’re looking at doing it monthly,” Racines said. “It’s not live, but it will be very timely.”

Because the website is not mandated by statute, Racines said she can’t speculate whether her successors will continue to update it, but she wasn’t aware of any reason they wouldn’t.

“We haven’t received any push back at all,” she added.

In the future, the website could include aggregated data, but for now, Racines said her team is content keeping the ship afloat.

“The beauty of it being a homegrown system is the cost is very low,” she said. “But, it’s not a luxury Cadillac.”

Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K

in Education/Government spending/News/Transparency
Transposition error makes it appear substitute teacher makes $216K
1776

By James Chilton, Cowboy State Daily

RIVERTON – In case you might’ve heard otherwise, please rest assured that a substitute teacher does not, in fact, hold the top-paying job in Fremont County School District 25 in Riverton. They’re not paying a custodian $120,000 a year, either.

But that certainly appeared to be the case if you were to visit the government spending accountability website OpenTheBooks.com Saturday morning. And it appears a transposing error is to blame.

Founded in 2011 and based out of a Chicago suburb, OpenTheBooks.com is a nonprofit dedicated to uncovering and disclosing the spending figures at every level of government, with an overall aim of providing the public accountability about where its money is spent. The nonprofit’s oversight reports on government spending have been featured by news outlets as diverse as C-SPAN, Good Morning AmericaFox News and The Wall Street Journal.

And according to FCSD 25 Personnel Manager Karen Wardner, the site does indeed show the correct figures for the employee wages paid in 2017, with Superintendent Terry L. Snyder topping the list at $212,685. But in the 2018 data, the top-earner listed is substitute teacher Terri L. Cole, with an annual wage of $216,894, with Snyder shown earning only $20,817 that same year.

“It’s definitely not accurate. I can assure you, we restrict the number of hours they (substitute teachers) work,” Wardner said in an interview Friday.

After viewing OpenTheBooks.com herself and observing the figures listed, Wardner said it appears the 2018 salary listing for Snyder was transposed with Cole’s name, possibly due to their similar first names and middle initial. 

“If you scroll down, it’s got her actual rate for 2017 at $6,665,” Wardner said.

The transposition appears to have thrown off much of the rest of OpenTheBooks’ 2018 salary list for the district. For example, Business Manager Lu Beecham – the district’s third-highest earner in 2017 at $120,000 – was switched out for a custodian in the 2018 list, so the custodian is shown making $120,450 while Beecham supposedly pulled down just $21,007.

Fortunately, Wardner said the error should be simple enough to fix once she’s able to determine whose names were transposed with whose. She said she planned to reach out to OpenTheBooks.com in the coming days to make sure the 2018 figures are updated to reflect reality. 

Symons: Groundwork laid to improve government transparency

in Column/Transparency
Wyoming government transparency
1723

By Gail Symons, member of the Transparency Working Group, special column to Cowboy State Daily

While it is easy to “want what I want when I want it,” the challenges of government transparency are much more complex than simply asking for data and receiving it immediately.

It was an early morning meeting the second week of the 2019 Wyoming Legislative Session.  The newly installed Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines brought to order the first meeting of the Transparency Working Group to a packed room in the Jonah Building.  On the phone was the CEO of OpenTheBooks, an organization that had brought suit against the previous Auditor for failure to produce five years of state spending data and vendor files.  A Wyoming based group, Equality State Taxpayers Association, joined in that suit. After being provided an opportunity to air their grievances and expectations, the CEO threatened to add Auditor Racines to the suit if the requested data was not produced in 30 days.

In September 2018, then candidates Governor Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines announced the Transparency Working Group to explore means to improve financial and operational transparency in Wyoming government.  The Working Group includes Sen Cale Case (R-Lander), Rep Tom Walters (R-Casper), Cheyenne attorney John Masters, Sheridan Press Publisher Kristen Czaban and myself, a civics wonk with 30 years’ experience in data-based process improvement.  Governor Gordon and Auditor Racines serve as co-chairs and are supported by policy advisor Renny MacKay.

Fast forward to the end of February and the close of the Wyoming Legislative Session.  The Auditor’s office had released the remaining spending records, refunded the $8,000 paid by the two groups and the suit had been dropped.  For the first month in office, the Auditor’s team had concentrated on completing the manual scrubbing of the records.  

During this same session, the Joint Corporations Committee had introduced SF0057 Public Records with short time frames for response and felony penalties.  After a committee meeting where it became clear that the impact on state agencies and their ability to comply had not been considered, an unusual working committee meeting was held. 

With input from advocacy groups, private citizens, state agencies and special districts, a substitute bill was crafted and subsequently passed. This removed the felony provisions, eased the time restrictions, required a public records person to be designated in each entity and created an Ombudsman position in the Governor’s Office.  The Ombudsman role is to serve as a mediator between requestors and government entities.

Fast forward again to mid-July.  The State Auditor has rolled out an online state checkbook developed in-house by the office’s IT individuals.  The checkbook can be found at www.WyOpen.gov.  This is static data that has filters and scrubbing applied to state financial data extracts to comply with privacy and other statutory protections.  The Auditor is encouraging use of the site and feedback to increase usability.

Also this summer, Interim Topic priority # 2 for the Joint Judiciary Committee has advanced.  That is a two-year study on public records and public meetings statutes to modernize in light of changes to law, technology and promote realistic transparency.  For 2019, the committee is reviewing the public records law to expand and improve on the work started with SF0057.

The Legislative Service Office has provided a summary of the current Wyoming Public Records Act including the wide range of exceptions to disclosure.  That report cabe be found online here.  To understand the financial and operational impact of records requests, a survey across all entities was conducted on the volume of requests, elapsed time to comply and costs in applied times.  The results are available here

The next Joint Interim Judiciary Committee meeting is scheduled at Casper College, Room EI 100 on August 15th and 16th 2019.

This past week, five candidates are being interviewed for the Ombudsman position by members of the Working Group and the Governor’s staff.  In addition to providing mediation, the individual will receive complaints, establish timelines for release of records and may waive fees charged by an entity.  Given the certainty that a new bill will be introduced by the Interim Judiciary and the uncertainty on exactly what are the exceptions to disclosure and how to apply them, the Ombudsman is expected to also provide policy and guidance.

On June 4th, 2019, Governor Gordon issued a letter to the state Elected Officials and Directors providing guidance on budget preparation for the 2021 -2022 Biennium.  In addition to expecting this to be a true biennial budget, meaning it will last for two years rather than be amended after one year, he emphasized his commitment to transparency with the requirement for having the budget be more readily understood by the public.  New this year is a State of the Agency covering all aspects of the operations and tie directly to the budget request. This letter, agency budget instructions and a budget request strawman can be found on the Budget Office website at https://ai.wyo.gov/divisions/budget.

There is significant truth to the saying, “if it was easy, it would already be done.”  Great strides have been made in reconciling perceptions of transparency (or lack thereof) with statutory, organizational, systemic and human realities.  In a very short period of time, groundwork has been laid to establish improved capabilities at all levels of state and local government with consistent processes and policies. 

The real success of these collaborative efforts will be tested in the upcoming 2020 legislative budget session.

Moats: Legislative attitude to government openness disheartening

in Column/Transparency
1513

By Bruce T. Moats

For the Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming citizens are abusing government agencies.

That is according to some legislators and other government officials discussing attempts by those who pay the bills – the taxpayers – to obtain public records.  The discussion took place at the recent meeting of the Joint Judiciary Committee in Gillette.

The attitude toward citizen access to government information was disheartening.  It demonstrated a distrust of the public that I have too often seen as a journalist and now as an attorney representing reporters.  But at the same time, government officials often ask us to trust them.  They say, “Hey, we got this.  We will take care of it.  We got it.” 

To that I quote President Ronald Reagan: “Trust but verify.”

Public access is not just about policing government, which is important, but is more about using the power of our collective judgment to better govern ourselves.  Abraham Lincoln noted that the rest of the world thought it folly for a government to involve people of all abilities and positions.  His answer was simple: Look where self-governance has brought us.

I cringe every time I hear government officials talk about providing public access to information as if it’s an annoying duty that is pressed upon them to the detriment of their regular duties.  Agencies do often struggle with adequate resources to fulfill their missions, but I humbly, with all my heart, say that providing public access is a critical part of those missions.  It is not an extra duty, a nuisance.  Instead, it is essential to democracy.  Listen to someone way smarter than I, James Madison:A Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it is but a Prologue to a Farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and the people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

 Gov. Mark Gordon campaigned on transparency.  (By the way, I have never heard one candidate for office ever say they were for less public transparency.)  Gov. Gordon and State Auditor Kristi Racines have formed a transparency group. 

One day before the last meeting of the transparency group, Gov. Gordon’s deputy attorney general speculated before the Judiciary Committee about the possibility that citizens could overrun agencies by making agencies adhere to a 30-day deadline to turn over public documents – a deadline adopted during the last legislative session.

The new deadline has not even gone into effect yet. It will not take effect until July 1. Yet, the deputy attorney general testified, without any real evidence, that agencies can get “inundated” with requests, supporting calls on behalf of some committee members to place restrictions on a bill that has not yet taken effect.  

The Legislative Service Office conducted a survey of local governments and state agencies about the public records requests they received in 2017 and 2018.  The figures were so similar for both years that the survey report only considered 2018. I will note that no municipalities responded to the survey due to a possible email snafu.   What effect that might have had on the results is open to debate.

The governmental entities were asked to “estimate” the number of requests received and to rank the average size of the requests received.  Three categories were given — large (more than 1,000 documents), medium (500-1,000 documents), small (fewer than 500 documents) or discrete document requests for documents that are readily available.  If large requests were the most frequent, then that category receives a one on a scale of four.  If it is the least frequent, then it receives a four.  The agencies were also asked in what percentage of requests did they issue a charge. 

Nearly 60 percent of responding agencies had received three or fewer requests. Slightly more than 80 percent received fewer than 10.  More than 150 of the 177 responses listed the large requests as least frequent.  

Approximately half of the respondents listed requests for discrete documents as the most frequent. Approximately one-third listed the small requests as most frequent.  In nearly 80 percent of the requests, the agency did not level a charge.

The lesson of the survey is that large requests are the exception rather than the rule.  Agencies have not been inundated with requests.  Thus, we are legislating for the exception. 

In my 22 years representing reporters, I rarely have waited more than 30 days for an agency to respond to a records request.  The agency’s attorney and I have discussed, cussed and negotiated a reasonable period for fulfilling a request.  Even the 30-day deadline allows a custodian to take longer if the request is unusual.  I can assure you that I would have no luck with a judge trying to enforce an unrealistic deadline for a large request requiring review of, say, 100,000 emails. The Legislature provided a way to handle these unusually large requests.

We can thank transparency opponent Sen. Tara Nethercott, the committee co-chair, for the LSO survey proving that this is a solution looking for a problem.  Her questions were aimed at showing the difficulties facing large and small agencies.  Conversely, she used the same survey to question the need for a new public documents “ombudsman” created by the Legislature, saying most requests are filled without difficulty and the agencies did not even level a charge most of the time.

Timeliness is often vital when citizens are seeking government information.  There is usually a decision pending, a controversy in full swing.  Getting the information about the horse after it has already left the barn is not helpful.  I believe the creation of the ombudsman was an effort to resolve disputes more quickly than can happen in court.

When your right to information is curtailed, regardless of the reason, the power shifts even more in favor of the government.  Ultimately, it is up to you, the public, to protect your right to know what your government is up to.

 Don’t let anyone fool you that this is all a media issue. Officials don’t care if reporters are given information off the record, but they do care if that information is going to be shared with you, the public. Further, numerous instances of government wrongdoing – improper awarding of bids, improper use of government equipment – have been discovered by members of the public exercising their right to see what is being done with their resources on their behalf.
           The Judiciary Committee should not be working to restrict that right.

State checkbook reveals $1.2 billion in out-of-state expenditures

in Government spending/News/Transparency
State checkbook reveals $1.2 billion in out-of-state expenditures
1183

By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily

Wyoming state government spends millions of dollars in other other states and Connecticut companies get more money than any other state, according to data released by the Wyoming State Auditor’s Office.

In calendar year 2018, Wyoming spent at least $1.2 billion out-of-state, nearly $247 million of which was spent in Connecticut on health care, alcohol and data for grant proposals.

The information is contained in what has been dubbed “Wyoming’s checkbook,” a list of 4.9 million state expenditures made over the last six years.

The data was released in January by state Auditor Kristi Racines, ending a years-long battle between the state auditor’s office, American Transparency, which operates “openthebooks.com,” and the Equality State Taxpayers Association.

“It’s critical this information is available to the public,” Racines said.

The list does not contain every tax dollar spent, Racines said, because some expenditures are confidential. 

“There are a lot of dollars that are confidential such as benefit payments to direct recipients,” she said. “Those are all confidential, and we’re talking big dollars.”

The information released shows about 21 percent of total state spending occurred outside of Wyoming.

“When you look at the expenditures as a whole,” Racines explained, “that 21 percent comes down.”

Without all of the data — confidential and otherwise — on hand, she said it was impossible to compare Wyoming’s out-of-state spending to other states.

Health Care

Health care for state employees was Wyoming’s largest out-of-state expenditure — $229.8 million — in calendar year 2018.While the State Employees Health Insurance Group is based in Wyoming, Ralph Hayes, the insurance group director, said a large portion of the healthcare checks are funneled through CIGNA, a global health service company with offices in Connecticut.

“A lot of the reason we need CIGNA is expertise,” Hayes explained. “We run this system with nine people. We’re providing health insurance for 37,000 members. We do not have the staffing, systems or expertise to review the medical claims, make sure they are appropriate them, adjudicate them and make payments to the providers.” 

The insurance group is self-funded, but CIGNA writes checks on its behalf, he said. The state then covers those checks by writing its own to CIGNA, Hayes added.

“Most of those are being sent to the medical providers back here in Wyoming,” he explained. 

Health care costs have inflated exponentially in the last two decades, and Hayes said the trend will likely continue.

In 1999, the state spent about $37.7 million on health care for state employees. By 2018, the state’s employee health care costs were approximately $284.4 million, Hayes said.The state’s sparse population spread thinly across a large geographical area also plays a role in increased medical bills.

“We don’t have multiple hospitals in any given area to compete against each other,” Hayes said. “Basically, we’re seeing cost increases from our medical providers. You can charge what the market will bear.”

Despite its name, he said the insurance group also provides insurance to University of Wyoming employees, community college employees and Natrona County School District employees, which inflates the number of checks being written to CIGNA.

Booze

After healthcare, alcohol is Wyoming’s second largest expenditure in Connecticut.

When the U.S. ended the prohibition in 1935, the federal government put the responsibility of regulating alcohol purchases in the states’ hands, Wyoming Department of Revenue Director Dan Noble said.

“Wyoming is a control state, which means we control the sale of alcohol in Wyoming,” Noble said. “(The Department of Revenue’s) Liquor Division is the sole wholesaler of alcoholic spirits and wine in the state of Wyoming.”

The state sent about $15 million to two companies — Diageo North America and Diageo Americas — in Connecticut for spirits in 2018.

“They are the largest supplier of alcohol in the world,” Noble said. “Diageo sells things like Crown Royal, Johnny Walker, Captain Morgan and just about any other major alcohol brand.”

The global corporation might be one of the state’s biggest suppliers of alcohol, but they are far from the only one.

“We will special order from virtually anybody that sells a product that can be brought into the country legally,” Noble said. “We buy product from within our state as well, like Wyoming Whiskey and Backwards Vodka.”

Once the state purchases the alcohol, he said the liquor division then sells it to about 1,200 licensed distributors throughout Wyoming at a markup of 17.6 percent.“

That money goes covering our costs and the state also utilizes that for general fund money as well,” Noble explained.

What’s left?

Once alcohol and health care are subtracted from the checks Wyoming sent to Connecticut in 2018, the remaining expenditures are scattered all over the board: The Wyoming Department of Transportation spent about $25,000 with Whelen Engineering Co., a manufacturer of audio and visual warning equipment for automotive, aviation, and mass notification industries; the Wyoming Department of Corrections spent about $2,700 with Al Hannah Clothing, an Islamic clothing supplier, and The Wyoming Department of Health spent about $44,000 with On Target Health Data LLC, a company whose website lists a single employee and conducts survey research, behavioral risk factor surveillance system research, program evaluation and health risk appraisal.

Based on the data provided in the checkbook, Wyoming spent the second largest portion — $121 million — of its 2018 out-of-state expenditures in Missouri. Alaska received the least amount of Wyoming’s money in 2018 — a total of about $5,000 for companies in The Last Frontier state.

The checkbook is dense, but Racines said she is working on a website to help Wyoming citizens understand how the state spends their tax dollars.

“We want this data out there in some kind of a digestable format,” she said. “What we envision for the website is any citizen can go on there and see what agency is spending what and where.”

The auditor she said she hopes to have the website up and running before the end of the year.

“We’re spending public funds,” Racines said. “We are stewards of the taxpayer dollar — all of them — and it’s important to understand where that goes.”

Research assistance for this story was provided by Kevin Lewis of the Equality State Taxpayers Association.

Digesting the elephant: A dive into Wyoming’s checkbook

in News/Transparency
1119


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.”

Racines says transparency panel will focus on gray areas of law

in News/Transparency
Racines Transparency Panel
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A transparency task force created by Gov. Mark Gordon and Auditor Kristi Racines will focus on the “gray” areas of Wyoming’s public documents laws, Racines said.

Racines, speaking with a reporter from Cowboy State Daily, said Wyoming’s Public Documents Law has many vague areas that must be addressed individually.

“We keep using this elephant example,” she said “Transparency is an elephant and we’re not going to eat it all in one day There’s not just one big red button we’re going to push.”

Both Gordon and Racines made government transparency an issue during their election campaigns in 2018, pledging the creation of a financial transparency task force to look at how best to make public information on government finances available and accessible.

The task force held its first meeting in January and a second one is planned for March, Racines said.

The task force’s work is complicated by the fact many transactions handled by the state are confidential, such as Medicaid payments, Racines said, and even more are not specifically addressed by state law.

“As far as state expenditures, there still very vague areas in the law,” she said. “You might (look at) one class of expenditures, you ask three different attorneys, you get three different answers. Because it’s not laid out specifically in our statutes.”

In addition to the task force, Racines was a supporter of recently approved legislation setting a 30-day deadline for the production of public documents in response to a request.

Racines said she was particularly enthusiastic about a piece of the legislation creating an “ombudsman” to mitigate disputes over public documents.

“I am really excited about the ombudsman,” she said. “Before (a person requesting documents) have to go to court, you can go to the ombudsman and we can work this out.”

Some have suggested the position be filled by an attorney and Racines said she could understand why that might be helpful.

“As I’m learning about all the intricacies and all the gray areas and whether things are public or not, I can see where being a lawyer might be valuable,” she said. “We have an absolute responsibility to get information out that’s public. But we also are custodians of a huge amount of people’s private information … and so balancing those two, it’s a big deal.”

Want to know more about transparency in Wyoming. Watch our wide reaching conversation with Wyoming State Auditor Racines here.

Governor signs public records, animal cruelty bill

in Criminal justice/Education/Energy/News/Transparency
Wyoming Legislature bills signed by Governor Gordon
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By Cowboy State Daily

Bills creating a felony crime of animal abuse and setting a deadline for the production of public records were among a group signed into law on Friday by Gov. Mark Gordon.

HB 235, one of the last bills to be approved by the Legislature in the closing hours of its general session, makes it a felony for a person to commit aggravated cruelty to animals resulting in the death or euthanasia of an animal or to abuse an animal with an intent to kill it.

The law takes effect July 1. Currently, a person convicted of animal abuse can only be found guilty of a misdemeanor. A felony conviction carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

The public records law, SF 57, sets a 30-day deadline for the release of public documents. It also authorizes the hiring of an ombudsman to help mediate disputes over the release of public documents.

Under existing law, there was no time limit for government agencies to release public documents.

Other bills signed into law Friday included:

  • SF 159, designed to encourage utilities to sell old coal-fired electric plants rather than retire them;
  • HB 103, requiring doctors who perform abortions to report those procedures to the state Office of Vital Records and requiring the the data be compiled into a public report;
  • SF 122, creating the “Wyoming Works Program,” which will provide grants for students attending technical programs at community colleges, and 
  • HB 99, creating a state “Public Lands Day.”

Gordon has until late March to sign bills into law, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.

Auditor encourages transparency, says it is not as simple as some believe

in Government spending/News/Transparency
Wyoming State Auditor Kristi Racines
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By Cowboy State Daily

Transparency in state government is very important, but achieving it can sometimes be difficult, according to state Auditor Kristi Racines.

Racines, in an interview with Cowboy State Daily, said she strongly believes that information on state government spending must be available to the state’s taxpayers.

“We want to know, as taxpayers, where our dollars are going,” she said. “What is our government doing, do we agree with it, do we not. We can’t divine if we agree or not if we don’t have the information.”

However, it can sometimes take a great deal of work to determine whether information held by the state should be public or private, she said.

“It’s never quite as simple as some folks make it,” she said. “The auditor’s office, we put out checks and there’s well over 1 million a year … A lot of those are confidential. The overwhelming majority isn’t. But sorting out everything that’s confidential and isn’t, it’s not clear. Not everything is black and white.”

For instance, while the auditor’s office pays the state’s bills using public money, some expenses are confidential, such as Medicaid payments or Victims’ Assistance payments, she said.

Racines was elected last year to succeed Cynthia Cloud, who did not seek re-election. Cloud’s final months in office were marked by ongoing litigation with a government transparency advocacy group that worked for several years to gain access to the state’s “checkbook,” the list of payments made by the auditor’s office.

Racines released the information about one month after taking office.

“I can’t really speak to what was done before,” she said. “I know a lot of times, public records requests can be intimidating to public employees. There’s often times fear … and sometimes there’s just some misunderstanding there.”

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