HELENA — The state Senate on Tuesday advanced a proposal to put detailed state government spending and employee salary information on a website, as supporters said the public should have easy access to information on how the state spends its money.
“The (state) agencies owe this to the people,” said Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman. “It’s going to cost a little bit of money. But it’s a duty that government owes its citizens.”
The Senate voted 30-20 to endorse Burnett’s House Bill 444, which directs the state to create a “public finance website.” The site would have a searchable database and include information such as employees’ salaries, agency budgets, all agency purchases and contracts, grants and leases, and published audits and reports.
A final Senate vote on the bill is expected Wednesday, after which it will go to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature or veto.
All Republicans in the Senate voted for the measure, joined by two Democrats: Sens. Mary Caferro of Helena and Bradley Hamlett of Cascade.
Democrats who opposed the measure said that if the Legislature is cutting back on funds for programs that help the elderly, the poor and the disabled, now is not the time to spend money to launch a website to coordinate and disseminate information that is already public and available.
“We were routinely told there was no money in the budget,” said Sen. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls. “If we don’t have the money to fund kids ... to fund seniors, to fund meals on wheels, to fund adoptive services, where can we come up with the money to fund House Bill 444?”
State officials estimated that creating the database and website would cost about $400,000 over the next two years and then another $100,000 a year to maintain.
Burnett told the Senate Finance and Claims Committee on Tuesday morning that he thinks the cost would be about one-third that amount. The data will take up less computer storage space than estimated and shouldn’t take a full-time employee to run it he said.
“This project will take someone who loves and nurtures it, and pushes it along,” he said. “But does it need a full-time (person) for the whole year? I would hope not.”
Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena and chairman of the panel, said he thinks state agencies should be able to absorb the cost as part of the nearly $8 million they pay to the Department of Administration for information technology services.
Sen. Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, who sponsored a similar bill unsuccessfully two years ago, said he thinks the website will end up saving the state money, because people will examine the data, see inefficiencies and suggest better ways for the state to do business.
“It’s like having a million auditors looking at our books,” he said.
Opponents said the measure is merely “feel-good” legislation that, among other things, will provide ammunition for political groups to use and manipulate.
“We’d have to spend our time responding to that,” said Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman. “It’s a real stretch to hear that we can implement this bill without any cost, that we can just absorb it.”