Opening the books, online

If knowledge is indeed power, Louisiana residents may be feeling a bit brawnier thanks to a new Web-based tool that puts a great deal of state fiscal information at their fingertips.

In a bid to increase public trust in Louisiana’s government and to attract new businesses here, the state launched an online program called Louisiana Transparency and Accountability, or LaTrac, to give anyone with Internet access a window into how the state spends public funds.

“Citizens must have as much information as possible about how government spends its money,” says Commissioner of Administration Angele Davis, whose department is in charge of the program.

LaTrac data is derived directly from the state’s general ledger, and officials say it represents actual historical accounting data updated on a monthly basis. The site lists the little and big numbers that go into the state’s spending, from the $1.57 billion devoted to Medicaid, making up more than 20 percent of last year’s budget, down to the $210.40 spent by one department on in-state travel expenses.

The program is the result of an executive order issued by Gov. Bobby Jindal on his first day in office last year. The site is still under development and more detail and modification are planned. For instance, officials promise to add budget and spending details from all state colleges and universities, just like the data now available for the Louisiana State University System. Further levels of detail in spending across other state departments will also be coming in the future, including a greater depth of salary information for specific positions and an outline of how state Medicaid payments are distributed to Louisiana hospitals and nursing homes.

The new accountability program comes when Louisiana’s image in the public integrity department is doing much better by at least one measure. Late in 2008, the state was ranked No. 5 in the nation on the Better Government Association’s Alper Integrity Index. The index rates the performance of each state in five areas of law: open records, whistleblower protections, campaign finance, open meetings and conflicts of interest. Louisiana’s total score was 61.4 percent. While the BGA chided all states to lift their scores further, Louisiana’s performance made it the only state in the Deep South to even crack the association’s top 20.

To access the LaTrac site, go to the state’s main Web page at www.la.gov or find the tool directly at www.doa.louisiana.gov/latrac.

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