At midnight Sunday, July 1, the first tier of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration’s new online checkbook will be available to the public. The checkbook was mandated by the Arkansas Financial Transparency Act, which was signed into law in March 2011. Essentially, the checkbook is a data aggregate of the state’s financial information, including contracts, payroll, expenditures, revenue and eventually, debt and bondedness. Initially, Transparency.Arkansas.gov will be populated with state employee salary, gender, race, title and grading information. On July 6, agency budgets, expenditures, purchase orders, revenue and contracts will be available. Revenues will be subdivided into four groups –- general, special, federal and other. Information pertaining to bonds, debt and accrued interest won’t be available till September, and the site will only collect information beginning with fiscal year 2013. Data will be searchable by keyword, employee’s name, position and agency name, and downloadable as either an Excel spreadsheet or CSV file.
Lt. Gov. Mark Darr has been a big proponent of the project, which was partially spawned in reaction to Arkansas being named, alongside six other states, as “failing” on a budget transparency report compiled by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Arkansas is the 47th state to enact an online checkbook, although Paul Louthian, Administrator of Accounting, implied that some states may have little more than a massive spreadsheet online.
The website is being built by Information Network of Arkansas, with information collected from the state’s accounting program, Arkansas Administrative Statewide Information System (AASIS), as well as various agencies. According to the act, budget, expenditures and revenue from all state agencies must be made public. The act reads: “ 'State agency' means any agency, department, authority, board, commission, bureau, council, or other agency of the state excluding 20 institutions of higher education." Finance Director Richard Weiss said that colleges and universities are exempt because each has its own independent computerized accounting systems, and the data couldn’t be easily aggregated into the general data. Each university is supposed to make the information available on its own website, and Transparency.Arkanasas.gov will provide links to these sites.
The online checkbook has start-up costs of $558,000, with an annual appropriation of $250,000, which includes the salaries of two new employees. This appropriation will be added to the $6 million general operational budget of AASIS.
According to Louthian, Arkansas is the only state with a mobile enabled website and will be the only state to offer pdfs of actual contracts. Expenditures will be updated daily, and salary data will be updated monthly. Salary information will not include the cost of employee benefits, which will be available by department, rather than by individual employee. Nor will salary information include bonuses, because of the complexity of the bonus system –- something the website will note.