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We live in challenging economic times. Texans know this every time they pick up a newspaper or turn on the news. During these tough conditions, governments should not be adding to the financial burdens of their citizens. Taxpayers have the right to know that all governments – whether at the federal, state or local level – are spending their hard earned tax dollars prudently and wisely. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent.
The pioneering efforts of Susan Combs to open the windows on government spending began with the Texas Comptroller’s Office and are now setting new, high standards of accountability and financial integrity across all levels of government in Texas. Her efforts have made the agency a role model of transparency and open government not only in the Lone Star State, but also across the United States.
Susan’s basic philosophy is simple, “It is your money and you have the right to know how it is being spent.”
Where the Money Goes
Beginning January 3, 2007, Susan posted detailed expenses of the Comptroller’s Office – down to the purchase price of paper and pencils – on the agency’s website. She followed up by putting the expenses of other state agencies online and by April 2007 had expenditures of the 24 largest agencies, which account for 80 percent of the state’s spending.
In October 2007 the Comptroller’s Office enhanced information posted on the website by adding a database searchable by: 1) state agency, 2) payee and 3) category of expense. The site includes a virtual check register, a daily record of agency expenditures showing amount and who received the payment. The detailed information is updated daily and available 24 hours a day on the Comptroller’s award-winning Where the Money Goes website. The site provides the public a look at more than $99.5 billion in annual state spending.
Where the Money Goes has opened the window on Texas government. Texans can see how state agencies are spending their hard-earned tax dollars, and state officials can study agency buying patterns. As an added bonus, companies that want to do business with the state can determine what goods and services state agencies need and are buying.
In addition, Susan’s transparency efforts are shedding light on how agencies are spending and are helping identify potential savings at all government levels. At the Comptroller’s Office, the agency discovered purchasing duplication and inefficiencies during the transparency process, such as multiple contracts for toner cartridges and unnecessary microfilming. As a result of Susan’s forward-thinking transparency initiative, the Comptroller’s Office alone has already saved taxpayers a projected $10 million.
Open Book Texas
Applying the successful buying smart strategies used at the Comptroller’s Office to government spending as a whole, in December 2008 Susan unveiled Open Book Texas, a set of three initiatives to improve government accounting accuracy, spending and transparency.
The first of these initiatives is TexasSmartBuy, which takes advantage of the state’s massive buying power to cut purchasing costs at the state and local levels. TexasSmartBuy is an online ordering system that allows state and local government entities to comparison shop to get the best value possible – just like Texas families do when shopping for items, such as clothes, books, household appliances and other products. In this case, governments can use the TexasSmartBuy “virtual shopping cart” to comparison shop for office supplies, furniture, vehicles and other goods and services.
TexasSmartBuy helps government agencies and local entities use the massive buying power of the state to receive the lowest price possible for goods and services. So far, TexasSmartBuy has saved taxpayers an over $68 million in purchases. Some of the cost-saving areas include renegotiating outgoing mail contracts, getting a new asphalt contract for the Texas Department of Transportation and negotiating a new contract for fleet vehicles.
The second part of Open Book Texas is the Texas Transparency Check-Up to help make local governments more open and transparent. The check-up tracks whether local governmental entities have budgets, financial reports or check registers online and offers a step-by-step guide for posting information that is easily understandable to the general public. Additionally, the check-up highlights local success stories to recognize governments that have made significant progress.
So far 145 of the state’s 254 counties have some form of financial information online and nine of these counties have a check register online. This gives Texans the opportunity to see how their tax dollars are being spent.
The last initiative is called Single Set of Books. The 2007 Texas Legislature asked the Comptroller’s Office to create an advisory council along with other state agencies to examine the various accounting systems being used in state government. The idea of using a uniform system – or Single Set of Books – in all state agencies and institutions of higher education will help Texas keep better track of its financial situation.
Today, there are a multitude of accounting systems and purchasing codes used in state agencies which often lead to confusion and duplication of purchases. For example, one agency may code pencils as “office supplies,” while another agency may code them just as “pencils.” A single accounting system would have prevented a $1.1 billion overestimate by the Texas Department of Transportation in its budget for road work. The agency is working to correct this, but the accounting error shows why a single set of books is important and valuable.
A uniform accounting system will standardize information, cut operating costs and shed more light on government spending. It also will help state leaders obtain up-to-the minute, reliable information on the state’s finances so they can make informed decisions and know exactly how tax dollars are being spent.
Tracking the Texas Stimulus
Following passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Susan launched Tracking the Texas Stimulus, a convenient, online, transparent resource to follow how Texas is using its share of the stimulus package. Currently, Texas is expected to receive about $15 billion, and Susan knows it is imperative for the state to be fiscally responsible and accountable to taxpayers. Americans must know their tax dollars are being spent judiciously and wisely in Texas.
The Comptroller’s Office continually updates the website so officials, business leaders and taxpayers have the most reliable information available. The site also is a valuable tool for groups and individuals needing information on grants and other funding sources available through ARRA and for contracting opportunities for businesses and organizations wanting to work on federal projects.
Transparency Leadership Recognized
The strong, proactive steps Susan has taken to enhance transparency in Texas and the resulting cost savings have earned her high marks and national recognition. In 2008 the Center for Digital Government presented the award for Best Technology Solution Serving the Public to the Texas Comptroller’s Office for the Where the Money Goes website.
In March 2009 Susan was only one of three women in the United States chosen by Government Technology Magazine as one of the nation’s Top 25 “Doers, Dreamers and Drivers” for her foresight and leadership in using technology to increase transparency in state government and in helping state agencies indentify ways to spend smarter.
Other states, such as Colorado, New Mexico and Mississippi, also are calling on Susan and the Texas Comptroller’s Office for help and guidance in their transparency efforts. Susan wrote the Colorado Legislature in support of that state’s proposed transparency legislation, and agency staff have offered assistance and testimony as state legislatures begin to look for ways to demonstrate accountability.
Responsibility…Accountability…Leadership – basic values Susan brought with her when she was sworn in as Comptroller in January 2007. Those strong values have been changing the way governments operate and opening them to the review and scrutiny of taxpayers. They also are cutting government spending and helping Texas weather an uncertain business climate. Susan’s landmark initiatives have been a benchmark for state government and are ensuring Texas has a bright future through a strong, open, responsive government.