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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Lawmakers out to improve state government finances site


EDITOR'S NOTE: Newspapers are watchdogs of government because of laws protecting the public's freedom of information. Sunshine Week is an annual examination of government's responsiveness to citizens. The Telegraph participates with newspapers from around the country.

CONCORD - Last year, state lawmakers ordered the creation of TransparentNH, a website devoted to state government finances, including various budget documents and a search tool for the entire state payroll.

The website, nh.gov/transparentnh, launched in December, and this year, lawmakers have proposed changes to make it even more informative.

"It was a good start," Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, said of TransparentNH. "It was a very good start, but it didn't go far enough to make sure that we have all the information."

Lambert is among a group of lawmakers who sponsored a pair of bills, House Bills 310 and 331, that would require state agencies to post much more detailed records of their spending and to keep their records in open data format, so that anyone could download the data and analyze it as they see fit. A related bill, House Bill 418, would require state agencies to use open source software where possible, rather than propriety systems that can make it harder to share data.

"If the data is available in an open format, then we can share it with our citizens, and if we have a choice in multiple ways to store it, then we should store it in an open format," Lambert said. "When you start doing that for all the state's data, it empowers the people today and in the future."

The TransparentNH website currently offers relatively general information in three different areas: revenues, or as the website puts it, "Where the money comes from;" spending, or "Where the money goes," and how revenues and spending are determined, "How Government Finances Work."

The spending and revenue sections both feature pie charts, showing the proportions of various areas of spending, and sources of revenue, with explanations for each of them. The "Government Finances" section includes a tutorial on the budget process, with links to current and proposed budgets in both PDF and spreadsheet formats.

There is also a "State Employee Pay Search" tool on the website, allowing users to look up the pay of any individual state employee or all employees within particular categories.

All this is well and good, Lambert and Rep. Seth Cohn, R-Canterbury, say, but lawmakers want still more detailed data, and they want it in a user-friendly format. Too often, Cohn said, state agencies respond to requests for information by providing a PDF image or worse, paper copy. HB 310 would require all state agencies to provide whatever public data they keep in "open" or "delimited" formats, readable by most any software, now and presumably in decades to come.

HB 310 bill would set statewide standards for how data should be gathered and compiled, and it would direct agencies to keep nonpublic, confidential information out of databases that should be public, so there will be no excuses to withhold information and to format data in a way that will make sharing easy, Cohn said.

The bill requires that data sets should be "complete," but also detailed, with "the highest possible level of granularity, not in aggregate or modified forms," and kept in open source, nonproprietary formats, so that anyone can use most any type of software to read it.

"If they hand you a pile of data that you have no way to read, that would do you no good," Cohn said.

The bill doesn't include any money to implement the policy, although state Department of Information Technology staff estimate they would need 10 new positions to do so.

"There is a cost here, but it's a cost because we did the wrong thing in the first place," Cohn said. "It's not meant to be a mandate where it's all going to happen overnight. ... but this needs to be the standard moving forward, for sure."

Cohn and Lambert said they believe the bills stand a good chance of passing the House and Senate. New Hampshire would become the first state to set statewide data standards, Cohn said.

"This is a first step, it sets the principles in place," Cohn said. "310 is meant to be the bill that sets the standards."

Lawmakers made some steps last year toward making bulk, open data available, posting the data sets behind the House roster and bill status search tools online, available for download, Lambert said.

Lawmakers have also been asking state information technology staff to make available the transcripts and recordings of hearings, which are already stored on state servers, Lambert said.

Along with the bill requiring all state agencies to adopt "open data" formats, HB 331 would require agencies to post more detailed spending information monthly on the TransparentNH website, "in a check register format" showing the date, amount and identity of the payee for each and every expenditure. Cohn and Lambert are among the sponsors; other local sponsors include Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare), and Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson.

A competing bill, House Bill 449, would go still further but has just two sponsors, Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, and Rep. Kenneth Weyler, R-Kingston. HB 449 requires all the more detailed expenditure information cited in HB 331, but also "information regarding elected and appointed officials, ethics, contracts, lobbying, taxes, and right-to-know requests."

The bill directs the TransparentNH website to include contact information and voting records for all elected officials (which already exists elsewhere on the General Court's website); ethics rules and the process for reporting violations; laws and regulations governing state contracts; a database of registered lobbyists; campaign contributions by any "vendor" that contracts with the state; data on Right-to-Know Law requests for each state agency; and various other information, which is generally available elsewhere on the state website.

That data would allow people to review those with whom the state does business and perhaps see if there is any correlation with campaign donations, or other political activity, Lambert said.

"There's a lot of information that one could hunt down but no central repository," Lambert said. "Specificity in government matters in a bill like this, because there is a tendency to resist giving anymore information than you have to."

Unlike some years, there are few bills pending in the Legislature to tinker with the state Right-to-Know Law, and one has already been killed.

House Bill 94, deemed "inexpedient to legislate," would have allowed advisory committees "with no policy or decision making authority" to meet officially "by electronic means," despite the requirements of RSA 91-A that public business be conducted in public.

House Bill 124 would allow any person to request conviction information on public officials. This information would be kept by state police and people would have to pay a small fee for the records.

The bill was submitted by a trio of Republican legislators from Hudson - Rep. Jordan Ulery; Rep. Andrew Renzullo and Rep. Robert Haefner. However, conviction information under the law would not include a record of an offense that is sealed or expunged.

House Bill 145 would allow people to record any public official while in the course of his or her official duties. If passed, this law would take effect Jan. 1. Among the sponsors is Rep. Lars Christiansen, R-Hudson.

House Bill 579, pending before the House Ways and Means Committee, would clarify the confidentiality of Department of Revenue information from the Right-to-Know's requirements on public records and make clear that while legislative budget assistance can review information from the department as part of their performance auditing process, they are required to keep confidential information confidential, even from the Legislature itself.

Andrew Wolfe can be reached at 594-6410 or awolfe@nashuatelegraph.com