[nfbmi-talk] main in the news and budget items

joe harcz Comcast joeharcz at comcast.net
Mon Dec 27 09:11:05 CST 2010


Michigan budget reports scrutinized

 

Some question cost, value of requiring state agencies to generate hundreds of documents

 

Paul Egan / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

 

 Lansing — Lawmakers this year are requiring civil servants to produce more than 800 reports about how budget money is spent — 29 percent more than 10 years

ago.

 

State agencies must send lawmakers about three reports each working day on everything from "staff time/activity regarding development of ergonomic standards"

to "prisoners receiving off-site medical care that would have received care within the correctional facility if beds had been available" to "the number

of homes weatherized through the preceding quarter."

 

 

Though the paperwork has swelled since 2001, the number of employees available to produce it has shrunk by 11,000. As nearly 4,800 more state employees

take early retirement Dec. 31, many are questioning the cost and

value

of the reports.

 

Increasingly, critics and certain lawmakers are calling for a new approach they say would increase transparency while saving staff time — having the state

produce fewer but better reports while posting on the Internet more of the state's raw data, including the details of every check the government writes,

allowing interested citizens to generate their own reports.

 

It's an idea embraced in principle by Gov.-elect Rick Snyder.

 

Though state officials say it would cost $100 million to $150 million to implement such a change, Snyder spokeswoman Geralyn Lasher said those estimates

"seem to be somewhat off base."

 

"Taxpayers deserve full disclosure of how their dollars are used," Lasher said. Though she gave no details, she said Snyder's "goal is to provide meaningful,

easily accessible information in a consistent format."

 

Wording known as "boilerplate" included in budget bills requires the generation of 485 types of reports during the 2010-11 fiscal year. Since some of them

must be filed quarterly or even monthly, the total required this year is more than 800. Only 376 types of reports were required in 2000-01, according to

House Fiscal Agency records. Also, the more than 800 reports required by appropriations acts account for only a fraction of the total number of state government

reports required each year, since many others are required in non-budgetary state laws or are produced as a matter of policy.

 

Employees bogged down

 

Ken Braun, director of the "Show Michigan the Money" government transparency project at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said the state should put

more raw data online and "produce fewer but much more useful and high

quality

reports."

 

Though nobody is able to put a price tag on the hundreds of reports required in budget acts, "it definitely has a cost," Braun said.

 

Each report is "on somebody's whiteboard to do," and "in any number of cases it's a very dedicated employee saying, 'I've got to generate this stupid thing,

and nobody's going to read it.'"Certain reports are useful, said Braun, such as the motor

vehicle

statistical report and certain financial analyses produced by the House and Senate fiscal agencies. But given details of state spending and other information,

many interested citizens are savvy enough with commonly used programs such as Microsoft Excel to produce their own reports tailored to their own needs,

he said.

 

It's not just Michigan civil servants who get bogged down producing the reports. The state's reporting requirements have long been a sore point with school

administrators, who must submit hundreds of reports to comply not only with budget laws, but also with mandates from the state's Center for Educational

Performance and Information.

 

Diverting staff from classrooms

 

Transparency and accountability are important, but "you're diverting staff and resources away from the classroom" for reports that in many cases are meaningless

or duplicative, said Brad Biladeau, associate executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.

 

For instance, rather than simply requiring schools to use protective eye gear in shop class, lawmakers require schools to file an annual report certifying

that the eye protection is in place, Biladeau said. By April of each year, school districts must file reports detailing "planned days and hours of instruction"

for the school year that's about to end, then essentially duplicate that report by Aug. 1 by telling lawmakers how many days and hours of instructions

students actually got.

 

Daniel Behm, superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools east of Grand Rapids, said he has officials who spend all their time preparing reports for the

state.

 

"Businesses will sometimes make the argument they are overregulated," Behm said. "We are definitely overregulated to a degree of redundancy that defies

any kind of common sense. It certainly costs money and, I believe, wastes money."

 

Braun and other experts say Missouri is at the forefront of the movement for state government transparency, not by requiring reams of reports but by posting

useful information on the Internet. The state's Web-based "Accountability Portal" allows users to look up almost any check the state has issued as well

as any state employee's salary.

 

Push for greater transparency

 

State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, said he has pushed for Michigan to follow Missouri's lead, but officials told him to do so would cost $100 million.

McMillin believes the cost figure is inflated and what he is really facing is bureaucratic inertia that will evaporate once Snyder takes office.

 

"I'm very interested in transparency; real transparency," McMillin said. "I think we're going to get that quickly; we're going to cut through this."

 

State Rep. Dan Scripps, D-Leland, has also pushed for greater government transparency. Many of the reports required in budget bills are the result of an

interest by a single legislator who may be gone as a result of term limits by the time the report is produced, Scripps said. In many cases, "whether anyone

at all reads the reports is an open question," he said.

 

Kurt Weiss, a spokesman for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, said lawmakers were told it would cost up to $150 million to put data on

the Internet the way Missouri has done. That's because the state's main accounting system, the Michigan Administrative Information Network, implemented

in 1994, is based on 1980s technology and isn't compatible with the Web, Weiss said. "We would need to get rid of the MAIN accounting system and build

a new one."

 

Officials have done what they can to put contract and spending information on the Web at www.michigan.gov/spending, but it is nowhere near the level of

detail of every check written, he said.

 

Asked when the MAIN system is scheduled to be replaced, Weiss said: "There's no money."

 

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