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Sunday, March 14, 2010

NH rep pushing online

The New Hampshire Legislature stands among a minority of states in the country requiring every bill to get a public hearing, a public committee vote of recommendation and a public vote from either the full House or Senate.

House and Senate sessions are aired live on streaming audio, and the state’s Web site permits the public to examine every bill and also view the up-to-date voting records of all legislators.

Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, engineered several reforms to make state budgeting more transparent as chairman of the House Finance Committee.

She took the budget committee on the road for public hearings, required agencies to put expected grants up front into the spending plan and sent performance audits about state agencies to policy committees to pour over for recommended law and regulatory changes.

But some national surveys have ranked New Hampshire below average for using technology to bring state government closer to the people.

This year, Smith is teaming with Rep. Norm Major, R-Atkinson, along with Senate leaders from both parties on legislation to make monthly expenditure reporting of state government available online.

Smith said budget cuts caused by the recession and the slow progress of the new budget and accounting computer system known as New Hampshire First prompted them to lower expectations of what can be put online now.

“We would all like to do a whole lot more than is provided for in this bill,” Smith said. “People say, ‘Oh just put it on an Excel spreadsheet.’ It’s not that easy, and we’re asking capable administrators who are already working with depleted staffs to put this information together.”

While not at the finish line, the state is moving in the right direction, she said.

Major said the state needs to focus on a few priorities and do them right.

“We can’t be asking her to do everything at once or nothing will get done right,” Major said.

Major’s female reference is Administrative Services Commissioner Linda Hodgdon who leaders of both parties credit with having the desire to make more information available despite a 15 percent vacancy rate in her own department and the fits and starts of the budget system.

Hodgdon admits there needs to be a lot of multitasking to get everything done and available for public inspection. For instance, the expenditure reports that Gov. John Lynch also called for in his State of the State address are still a “couple months away.”

“We just have to do all of this in an incremental manner. That’s the reality.”

What will take even more time to achieve, Hodgdon said, was the proposal of Senate Republican Leader Peter Bragdon, of Milford, and others to post online a virtual checkbook of all real-time spending by state agencies.

Hodgdon said agencies have varied forms for expenses, and some contain personal details about the vendor or the buyer of state service that shouldn’t go online.

“One of the things we haven’t done well is understand what private confidential information we have, Social Security information, home addresses, even health information,” Hodgdon said. “We’ve got to finalize ways to ensure all of that stays private as we become more transparent on the Web.”

The Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy has since last April been working toward having a Web site tool on all state expenses that is available in as many as 40 states, according to Executive Director Charles Arlinghaus.

At the federal level, 2008 presidential nominees President Barack Obama and John McCain co-authored the same proposal when both were in the U.S. Senate. Supporters span the ideological spectrum from conservative Grover Norquist to liberal Ralph Nader.

“This movement is sweeping the country. We are going to put every dime, every check in a gatekeeper free, online searchable database like an encyclopedia-like research tool,” Arlinghaus said.

“I like to think of it as a policy tool that anybody can use. This will be extraordinarily useful to people who think exactly opposite of me as well as someone who thinks as I do.”

Similar spending transparency Web sites in Connecticut revealed the state’s Corrections Department paid Ruggles The Clown $600 to entertain at a jail house party and in Maine turned up that state agencies spent five figures each year to repair typewriters.

While dealing with legislation, Hodgdon has also worked with Arlinghaus’ group and responded to its Right-to-Know request.

Last week, she turned over 5,000 transactions representing about one-half of 1 percent of state spending.

This was all spending by professional boards and commissions.

“We appreciate the work and cooperation she’s given us to date. Our vision is that anything less than everything is unacceptable,” Arlinghaus said.

By the end of April, Arlinghaus said the center would debut a Web site, www.nhopen gov.org, to post all the expenses it’s able to secure from the state by that time.

“Today, anybody can easily access mountains of data on anything and the public has a growing, very healthy expectation they should get to see how all their taxpayer dollars are being spent,” Arlinghaus said.

“State government is the first step. Our plan is to put state government online, county government online and local government online.”

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.