By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

Hetzel

I am passing along requests that you consider editorial support for five bills pending in the House State and Local Government Committee that would make data and other government information more accessible and useful for journalists and, really, all citizens. ONA supports these bills.

One bill creates a state government expenditure database that would be publicly searchable on the state treasurer’s website. The other is a package of bills under the umbrella of DataOhio.gov, providing incentives to local government to post more information to the Web in an easily searchable format and also unifying accounting procedures to make comparisons easier.

Why the urgent pleas we received? Supporters fear that if they can’t at least get the bills through the House before the summer recess, there will be little or no chance to complete work this fall, which means the legislative process starts from scratch in the new session that begins in 2015.

Obviously, these are local decisions at your newspaper, but if you decide to editorialize or do a story, you certainly can say that the ONA continues to support these measures.

Details are below.

State expenditure database

State Treasurer Josh Mandel urges passage of House Bill 175, which would establish a state government expenditure database on the Internet to track state government expenditures.

We testified in support of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Dovilla, R-Berea, in December before the House State and Local Government Committee. Since then, the bill has not moved.

Anticipating two questions you might have, we are not aware of any opposition to the bill, and Mandel has said that this can be done with the existing resources in his office.

Here are bullet points provided to the ONA by Seth Unger, Mandel’s communications director:

Online Checkbook Increases Transparency

  • State Representative Mike Dovilla’s (R-Berea) HB 175 “Open Ohio” bill would establish the Ohio State Government Expenditure Database to help show taxpayers exactly where their money is being spent.
  • This legislation will require the Treasurer’s office to place the state of Ohio’s checkbook online so that taxpayers have access to billions of dollars of government expenses at their fingertips.
  • HB 175 will increase government accountability and transparency by creating a searchable, freely accessible database that displays the expenditure information of all state agencies.
  • The data will come from the state accounting system and include the amount of the expenditure, the date of the expenditure, the person to whom the expenditure was paid, and the state entity that made or requested the expenditure.

Transparency is not a Partisan Issue

  • As Ohio’s taxpayer watchdog, Treasurer Mandel believes it’s important that Ohioans have the ability to follow their tax dollars and hold elected officials accountable.
  • By shining sunlight on state spending and decisions made deep in the bureaucracy this bill will give taxpayers the resources to help root out waste, fraud and abuse.
  • Transparency is not a partisan issue; it is about shining light on spending so that taxpayers know where their money is going.
  • Rep. Dovilla and his colleagues have identified an issue that brings together Democrats and Republicans.
  • HB 175 has unified groups across the political spectrum with the Ohio Public Interest Research Group (Ohio PIRG), the Buckeye Institute, and the Ohio Newspaper Association all supporting.

Continuation of Transparency Project

  • “Open Ohio” is a continuation of the Treasurer’s Transparency Project that Treasurer Mandel launched shortly after taking office.
  • Starting in 2011, the Treasurer’s office began displaying salaries for state employees and education employees in a fully searchable state database.  The legislation places in statue a requirement that the Treasurer’s office continue to display these salaries going forward.
  • The Treasurer’s office also hosts an interactive database of state-owned properties, and provides the public access to county investment reports and other state and local data as part of this project.
  • Representative Dovilla partnered with the Treasurer’s office on HB 175 to host a fully searchable state agency expenditures database on www.OhioTreasurer.gov after viewing other components of the Treasurer’s Transparency Project.

Details on Implementation

  • The Treasurer’s office expects to be able to build on existing IT infrastructure to expand the transparency project to include the online checkbook, and will build the website using existing resources in the Treasurer’s budget.
  • This project will utilize the state accounting system (Ohio Administrative Knowledge System or OAKS), to pull information from state agencies and entities.
  • This legislation only pulls from existing data that is stored in the state accounting system, and doesn’t require entities like state universities, local governments, JobsOhio, or other entities outside of the system to report.
  • The Treasurer’s office is an appropriate place to house this database because the Treasurer is the state’s banker and chief financial officer.
  • The chair of the local government committee asked whether this needed to be done legislatively, and Rep. Dovilla said it’s possible that it could be done without legislation, but that putting it in statute puts a legislative imprint on this initiative and will require that it be maintained going forward.

DataOhio.gov bills

A number of papers have written about these four bills (House Bills 321 through 324) sponsored by Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, and Rep. Christina Hagan, R-Uniontown.

The bills have had multiple hearings in the House, and a number of amendments were adopted this week, including one proposed by the ONA.  As best I understand the opposition, local government groups are concerned about the complexities involved and a “slippery slope” that could shift from voluntary incentives with grant dollars to unfunded mandates in the future. The township and municipal associations in particular have expressed concerns, and they have support from some legislators.

Our position is that it is up to the Legislature to hash out the resource challenges, but if a reasonable way can be found to implement the ideas in these bills, it would be good for all citizens (not just journalists) and Ohio in general to be on the forefront of the public data revolution.

Below is a synopsis provided by Rep. Duffey:

DataOhio initiative – how it works

  • The DataOhio Initiative is a four-bill package to increase Ohio public record transparency
  • It does so by encouraging records to be online in standardized formats that are easy to find
  • It creates a DataOhio board (5 statewides, 4 legislature, 3 local gov, 1 regents, 1 state librarian and 1 data consumer) to recommend standards for online records (both state and local)
  • It creates a one-stop website, data.ohio.gov, for journalists, researchers and citizens to get standardized records from hundreds of public offices quickly
  • It establishes apples-to-apples standards for accounting so those records can be compared (uniform accounting requirements already exist for Ohio schools, but not cities and townships)
  • It provides $10k grants to local governments who choose to put data online
  • It is completely permissive for all public offices; we hope they adopt standards but they aren’t mandatory. By offering standards, many offices may “opt in” to build a trend
  • The bill package is supported by the Ohio Newspaper Association, Greater Ohio, The Buckeye Institute, The Center for Community Solutions, the Data Transparency Coalition, the Sunlight Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the State Librarian, several OSU researchers, several Ohio technology companies, etc.

National picture on similar “open data” efforts:

  • President Obama recently signed the DATA Act, sponsored by Ohio Senator Rob Portman, to require the treasury dept. to publish certain records online in open data format
  • Other states (such as Georgia) have already previously established uniform charts of accounts for apples to apples comparisons of financial data; in many states, these are mandatory.
  • Other states have also setup one-stop websites (data.ny.gov, data.hawaii.gov, etc.)

For journalists:

  • DataOhio will make some public records much easier to access.  Instead of having to do a public records request, they will be posted online for anyone to access instantly
  • By standardizing the data, journalists will be able to query data from many cities, townships, etc. and get that information in aggregate compiled instantly instead of manually
  • With uniform accounting, journalists will be able to compare spending among various jurisdictions and know it is more apples-to-apples than in the past.
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