Opening up state government
A new website shines a bright light into the dark crevices of state government.
State government in Illinois gets a lot of criticism, and deservedly so, but a periodic positive development is worthy of note.
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka knocked one out of the park this week when she announced that her office is putting the finishing touches on a new website that puts important financial information within the reach of your fingertips.
It's called The Ledger (http://ledger.illinoiscomptroller.com/), and the information it makes available to the public has the potential to shake up the status quo in Springfield.
Not without good cause, Topinka brags that The Ledger is "the most comprehensive, up-to-date online financial database that Illinois has seen."
"Beyond providing the day's balances and transactions, the site allows taxpayers to inspect state revenues, expenses, contracts and salaries — all without having to move from their home computer," she said.
This kind of information is now and has been public — if those seeking it were willing to visit a variety public offices, jump through bureaucratic hoops and put up with intentionally delayed responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.
Using what it calls its "Financial Warehouse," a store of financial data that is updated each day, The Ledger cuts through delays by putting this vital information in one place, making it available with a couple of keystrokes. It even provides an automatically generated Freedom of Information request to the comptroller's office for those seeking detailed information like copies of contracts.
"Unless an alternate format is requested, you will receive a digital copy of the (document) within five days," according to the comptroller's office.
Here's some of the information on the website:
— Daily general balances and bond rating information.
— Unpaid bill totals.
— A state contract database.
— A state salary database.
— Revenue and expense database.
— All state financial reports.
One would have to be extremely naive to think that all the powerful people in state government will welcome the easy availability of this vast array of financial information. In Springfield, information is power, and there are those who choose to hold it close.
Topinka's new website will make that much more difficult, perhaps even impossible. During a meeting this week with The News-Gazette, Topinka acknowledged there will be those who resent, or may even resist, her decision to put this information online. But she said she is committed to The Ledger and will resist any efforts to modify or eliminate the information it provides.
It's no secret that state government in Illinois is in crisis mode caused by years of reckless spending and that the financial chickens are coming home to roost.
One of the many reasons for this is that state officials played games with the numbers, essentially deceiving the public about the state's financial realities.
It'll be harder to fudge the numbers now that everyone who's interested will have access to the same information used throughout state government and have it in real time.
The Ledger offers real financial transparency, and Topinka deserves credit for making it a reality in state government.