Web site tracks state spending

Posted Sept. 23, 2008, at 9:57 p.m.

The state of Maine paid more money in overtime than it did in salary in 2007 to a nurse at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

A civil engineer with the Maine Department of Transportation racked up $16,000 in mileage reimbursements.

And the state of Maine spent $80,980 on bottled water.

If you’ve ever wondered where your tax dollars are going, the brand new MaineOpenGov.org Web site is for you. The site offers searchable databases of public information, including the payrolls of state employees, University of Maine System employees and money spent on goods, services and entertainment.

While the results can be startling, officials at the research center launching the Web site said that this kind of transparency is crucial — especially as the state wrestles with a budget shortfall.

“To us, it’s not about spending more or spending less, it’s about spending smart,” said Tarren Bragdon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

The policy center is a non-profit research and educational organization based in Portland. The center promotes free enterprise and limited government. The $50,000 Web site was paid for by grants from foundations and by individual and corporate donations.

Bragdon and his colleagues think that no matter what your political persuasion, there’s a lot that’s fascinating in finding out how the state spends its money.

For instance, there are 371 people in state government who earn more than the governor’s $70,000 per year.

The state spent $52.8 million on payments to vendors in Massachusetts — compared to $8 million to vendors in Bangor.

And the highest salary in the state — $208,000 per year — is paid to former University of Maine Chancellor Joseph Westphal, who is currently working as a professor in the University of Maine System.

“We want to show Maine taxpayers — down to the agency, person and penny — where their dollars go,” Bragdon said. “How can you get the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck?”

The commissioner of the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services urges Mainers to use caution as they research spending through the Web site.

“If the goal is increasing transparency, I have no issue with that. The information is public and available for scrutiny by anyone,” Ryan Low said. “The information is certainly useful, but to understand it, you really need the context.”

Bragdon and his colleagues said they worked for months to ferret out the fiscal information. They filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the state and got legislators to make requests for them.

“We found that the state tends to be more responsive when a legislator asks,” Bragdon said.

The new Web site comes on the heels of a nationwide push to increase transparency in government spending.

The staff at the Maine Heritage Policy Center are looking for feedback from the public as they work on plans to expand their database.

“We felt like Maine people, elected officials and the media really needed these tools,” Bragdon said. “The thing is, nobody’s looking, so nobody asks these questions. That’s what we want folks to do. Ask questions.”

On the Web:

MaineOpenGov.Org

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