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State Auditor Kristi Racines

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

in News/Transparency
Transparency
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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.”

Symons: Groundwork laid to improve government transparency

in Column/Transparency
Wyoming government transparency
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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.

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
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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.

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.

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