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The Difficulty of Accessing Clear State Budget Data

by CORY EUCALITTO | September 28, 2011

One of the largest obstacles to covering state budget issues is often state government itself. Accessing simple budget data such as revenue and expenditure totals can create a headache harsh enough to discourage even the most determined citizen activist. 

State Budget Solutions recently ran into this problem head on. Tasked with finding the simple budget data mentioned above, in order to compare trends between the states, our researchers took to the state government websites. As anyone who has ever attempted navigating a government website for even the most basic information knows, it is no small task.

The first challenge in researching state budgets is finding the budget document itself. Of course, one can find links to the various documents compiled by an organization such as the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). The average Connecticuter, however, will be hard pressed to find his way through the state's General Assembly website, to the list of bills passed, and finally to HB-6652, "An Act Implementing the Revenue Items in the Budget and Making Budget Adjustments, Deficiency Appropriations, Certain Revisions to Bill of the Current Session and Miscellaneous Changes to the General Statutes." In other words, the budget. 

If just finding a budget document is a researcher's only mission, some states are gracious enough to make it easy. Indiana, for example, provides a large "Budget Information- learn more" graphic, guiding even the most internet-inept Hoosier straight to a list of relevant documents

Deciphering the materials provided by the states is an entirely different challenge in itself, not necessarily because of a lack of transparency, but because of jumbled, unclear budget processes

Budgets are often divided up into different parts, whether they be general fund, capital, transportation, proprietary, etc. Washington State provides relatively clear access to its budget documents. What the state lacks is any easily understandable explanation of what matters to taxpayers: how much money the state is taking in, how much it is spending, and on what. Deciphering and combining the numbers provided in the separate capital budgets (regular and bond project), operating budget, and transportation budget requires extensive knowledge of the budget making process, not to mention the hefty time investment and very large calculator. Interested in how specific expenditures ended up in budget in the first place? You're going to want to check the Governor's proposed budgets, each budget as originally passed by the legislature (capital, bond projects, operating, and transportation), as well as the Governor's veto messages for each.  Good luck! 

Each state does publish a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which tend to go back farther in time than the regular budget agency or legislative website. These reports, though, still run into the same problem of presenting outsiders with widely varied sets of numbers, yet no discernible indication of a state's fiscal picture. Many states also put out budget summaries, like this one from California. The word "summary" seems to lose a bit of meaning, though, when it describes a 70 page document.

Certain outside groups do invest the time and treasure necessary to calculate meaningful budget indicators. The NASBO is one, and another is the data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. Any further interpretation of the data, by an organization like State Budget Solutions, must rely on these institutions for their information. Depending on these groups for understandable explanations of respective budget situations, instead of the states themselves, takes power out of the hands of everyday citizens. Such analysis should not be left to only third parties who may or may not disclose their accounting methods, and may also fall prey to ideological leanings. There is simply no reason that we should have to rely on experts at third party institutions for straightforward explanations of how much money is being taken in versus spent. If they can provide the information, the state itself should certainly be capable of doing the same.

Responsible, reality based budgeting does not end once a bill has been adorned with the governor's signature. Budget information should be clearly presented to the public, in an easily accessible manner, so that every citizen has the ability to see how their tax dollars are spent. Likewise, historical data should be available to understand how a state's budget situation has changed over time. 

Increasing transparency and simplicity in how budget data is presented can create a more informed citizenry, ever more capable of keeping a watchful eye on state government. Of course, that may be the ultimate fear of legislatures and governors throughout the country who seem to so actively prevent the dispersion of relevant knowledge about how government truly operates. Millions of people in the country know how to create an Excel spreadsheet with accompanying charts and graphs. Its time state governments learned, too. 

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