Colorado is making it easier for residents to see what their government is spending their tax dollars on, down to every last paperclip and coffee order in the governor’s office.
Late last year, the state quietly turbocharged its clunky and neglected online checkbook by migrating millions of lines of financial data to a new software system.
Doug Platt, a spokesman for the state’s department of personnel and administration, says Colorado was able to repurpose software that was already being used in another branch of government.
The tweaks result in faster load times and a checkbook that is updated daily, delivering on the state’s decade-old promise of giving taxpayers a real-time glimpse into government spending.
“We used to have to create a report, which was labor intensive, and then take that report and manually upload it on a weekly basis,” Platt said. “Now, with the new system, it basically interfaces with the state’s accounting and budgeting system... And so, the system automatically updates on a daily basis.”
Two years ago, Rocky Mountain Community Radio invited Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts to the state Capitol to test drive the older version of the so-called online checkbook.
The review wasn’t pretty.
The checkbook was slow to load and difficult to search. It also was not being updated regularly, despite a state law mandating updates every five days.
“There was never any funding or staffing associated with the development of this system,” Platt said at the time.
The state still hasn’t received any money to maintain the system. But after the checkbook was updated, we invited Roberts back via Zoom to update the previous review. And he got a good first impression.
A ‘huge improvement’
“The first thing I noticed is that it was a lot quicker,” Roberts said of the upgraded system. “You didn't have time to do a crossword puzzle or read a novel while you waited for the query to run, like with the old system. And that's a huge improvement. You know, I think, and I also noticed that there are some tutorials that they have some video tutorials, which is very good.”
The data displays much faster. But is it useful?
Roberts wondered whether residents could use it to find out how much Colorado paid to build a field hospital for potential COVID-19 patients at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver.
The hospital did not serve any patients.
It took about 10 minutes of research for Roberts to find the receipts for the lease payments, which ultimately showed the state spent more than $19 million on the hospital.
But he had to know to search for recent payments to the city and county of Denver, which owns the facility.
“This is very worthwhile, it just takes a little bit of work to understand the data,” he said.
He said the faster, regularly updated checkbook has other benefits.
“There's all sorts of other questions anybody might have at any particular point in time that they could possibly find in this database about how the how the state of Colorado spends money and how much revenue it gets,” he said.
But even with a faster, less clunky checkbook, there are still some limitations.
It was difficult, for example, to try and use it to find out how much the state has been spending on public service announcements about the pandemic.
And it leaves out some financial details. The checkbook can easily reveal whom Colorado is writing checks to, but it doesn’t always list what was purchased.
Requests seeking the actual expense reports can cost hundreds of dollars to get fulfilled because the state can charge up to $33.58 per hour for research and retrieval.
“I have some advice for people who (face high costs for records requests), but it’s kind of limited advice because the law is really on the side of people in government,” Roberts said at a recent web forum called “Outrageous Records Request Fees (and what to do about them).”
Transparency advocates are calling on state lawmakers to reform the Colorado Open Records Act to make getting public records easier, and less expensive.
But some top lawmakers are skeptical such reforms will emerge as a priority this year.
Asked last month about the prospects for CORA reform, Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, said lawmakers have lots of other issues to tackle this year.
“I personally, at least to the best of my knowledge, don't know that to be of the highest-ranking priority currently in the Senate,” he said.
View the state's online checkbook by clicking here.