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Louisiana GOP seeks spending website in tax talks

February 8, 2018
By The Associated Press
Originally Posted on The Times Picayune

In Louisiana's partisan debate over taxes, Republicans and Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration are bickering over a one-stop website detailing how every state budget dollar is spent.

GOP lawmakers, conservative organizations and business groups are promoting a searchable website they say offers transparency in government, which they're calling Louisiana Checkbook. It's among the spending control measures sought by House Republican leaders as they negotiate with the Democratic governor over his push to replace $1 billion in expiring temporary taxes.

Edwards' administration says it supports a transparency website and already is working on something similar. But the push for Louisiana Checkbook has drummed up disagreements over format, timetable and price tag -- and it's becoming tangled in the larger haggling over taxes.

GOP lawmakers want legislation describing the plans for the website, and they've said they'll tie support for tax bills to its passage.

The friction, bubbling on social media and in dueling press releases for days, spilled into more public view Thursday at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry's annual meeting.

The business lobbying group is a prime pusher of Louisiana Checkbook. As part of its promotion of the idea, the organization held a panel discussion that included an official who helped create the model Ohio Checkbook website. The talk also featured Republican state Treasurer John Schroder, a critic of Edwards' tax plan and a Louisiana Checkbook booster.

"It's amazing what you do when somebody's watching you," Schroder said. "Transparency leads to accountability."

The Ohio Checkbook site demonstrated Thursday has a Google-style search bar, interactive charts and graphs and the ability to share the data on other websites or download it. The information can be searched by agency and spending type, detailed down to individual expenses.

Edwards told the business organization at its luncheon that he doesn't oppose the concept.

"There's not an objection from me," he said. "We just need to make sure we can do it in a reasonable fashion."

But Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, the governor's chief budget adviser, said the idea also isn't as easy as it seems -- or as the Louisiana Checkbook promoters suggest.

He said Louisiana needs every state agency on the same accounting and financial management computer system, an ongoing project that started under former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration and has cost the state about $100 million so far.

Dardenne said that work will cost another $26 million to finish, money he's requesting from lawmakers, and won't be done until 2021. He said that work dovetails with planned improvements to a Jindal-era government spending website called LaTrac that he said will offer the sorts of searchable information that Republicans are seeking.

"This is somewhat of an issue that's not really an issue," he said. "There absolutely does not need to be legislation. We're doing it anyway. And we're going to continue to do it. We don't want legislation that is duplicative or trying to reinvent the wheel here."