By Ike Fredregill, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming’s checkbook contains a mountain of information about state agency spending, but it’s far from a full accounting of Wyoming’s budget.
“There’s a lot in the checkbook, but there’s also a lot missing,” said Kevin Lewis, an Equality State Taxpayers Association (ESTA) researcher. “The auditor’s office only tracks the checks they write, and some agencies use their own internal accounting system.”
After a years-long legal battle between ESTA, American Transparency and the state, newly elected Wyoming State Auditor, Kristi Racines, released the checkbook shortly after taking office in January. The checkbook contains approximately 4.9 million line items of expenditures made by state agencies during the last six years, but it does not include several spending categories such as state employee salaries or victims’ benefit payments.
Additionally, Lewis said portions of the released information are missing identifying codes.
The coding system is used so the data can be broken down by agency and spending category, but some codes fall short of identifying anything more than the department that ordered the expenditure.
“You’ll frequently see (in the checkbook) Wyoming Department of Transportation only, or Attorney General only,” Lewis said. “In general, you’d like to not have that, because it makes it difficult to figure out where the money is being spent.”
Releasing information to the public is a complex process, but it boils down to fulfilling information requests, Racines said.
“Payroll is different than writing a check to someone,” she said. “The auditor’s office doesn’t deal with salaries, it deals with paychecks.”
Paychecks can include confidential information about employees, so Racines said her office has to approach releasing paycheck data carefully as some of it might be covered under various confidentiality laws, both state and federal.
Regardless of the hurdles, she said the answer to why payroll information wasn’t in the checkbook is simple.
“It wasn’t in the request,” Racines explained.
If the information were to be requested, she said the office would release the information, but only after they reviewed state and federal statutes and consulted with the Wyoming Attorney General’s office about what portions of the paycheck could be released.
Other confidential categories include victim benefit payments, some law enforcement activities, subsidized adoption payments and benefit payment assistance.
“There’s a lot of categories that might seem obvious,” Racines said. “And some of the categories are not as black and white as they may seem. An expert witness payment may be confidential while a case is ongoing, but not later.”
Because the checkbook is a line-by-line expense report, the auditor said it did not include many payments protected by confidentiality laws. While the payments themselves are confidential, the amount an agency spends on a confidential category is not.
“The public can request to see how much an agency spent on something like victim’s benefit payments,” Racines explained. “But because that wasn’t in the (checkbook) request, we didn’t include it.”
The auditor’s office handles most of the state’s accounting, but some agencies use their own accounting system.
“We use Wyoming Online Financial System, which is like a gigantic version of QuickBooks,” Racines said. “Some agencies, like the University of Wyoming, have an internal system, though.”
When an agency uses a different system, Racines said she can’t access its records, and therefore, her office couldn’t include its expenditures in the checkbook. In addition to the university, Wyoming Game and Fish and WYDOT expenses were largely absent from the released data as well as Wyoming Pipeline Authority and Wyoming Infrastructure Authority line items.
“The infrastructure authority and the pipeline authority are a little different,” Racines explained. “They’re authorities, not agencies, so my understanding is the state cuts them a check for their budget, because it is appropriated by legislature. Then (the authorities) cut out individual checks.”
Wyoming’s agencies use about 6,000 codes to categorize how state money is spent, but the system is old and has not been regularly updated, Racines said.
“Our data is only as good as our codes are,” she explained. “We have a lot of codes that are unused, and some that could maybe be better described.”
Lewis said without better code descriptions, the data reviewers are left to guess at what the state spends money on.
“On one line item, maintenance might be spelled out, but on another it could be just MT, then in another it’s ‘Op & Maint,’” Lewis said. “Spelling and consistency problems aside, the chart of accounts often doesn’t include enough information about the item. We can see the governor’s office spent ‘X’ amount on farm equipment in 2017, but we don’t know why.”
Even with missing codes and jumbled descriptions, Lewis said releasing the checkbook was strong step toward increasing transparency in Wyoming government, but it’s just the start.
“Even though we finally got the checkbook, we only have a little bit of the picture,” Lewis said. “We have a long way to go before we figure out the rest of it.”