October: Let the sunshine in on contracts

2010 Columns

A state website operating since 2007 is supposed to be informing citizens how state government spends some of their taxpayer dollars by disclosing information on state contracts worth $10,000 or more.

But that is not happening. And for a state that strives to be a leader in government transparency, this is not a pretty story.

Even after three years, most state agencies have posted little to nothing on the site. Compliance has started to improve this year – mostly due to an Appleton Post-Crescent investigation last March and subsequent media attention.

The website – http://sunshine.wi.gov – was created under the state Contract Sunshine law. This law requires all state agencies and the University of Wisconsin System to post the value of contracts worth $10,000 or more – as well as open solicitations, contracts that were not awarded and other purchasing information.

But the Post-Crescent initially found only 14 of 98 state agencies had bothered to post at least one state contract. Six months after its story broke, as of Sept. 21, compliance had increased to 37 of 98 state agencies.

The Government Accountability Board, which enforces the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws and is in charge of administering Contract Sunshine, had early problems making the website usable. Some state agencies said they were even told to delay reporting until the board could fix the problems.

At this point, the board has improved the site and reminded state agencies what information they are supposed to provide. The board also has asked agencies to designate an employee to post contracts and file quarterly compliance reports.

The website lets the public search for contract information by state agency, division or office, as well as by vendor, product or service.

For example, someone interested in transportation costs would now find hundreds of contracts, including one that shows the Department of Transportation awarded a $6,597,878 contract April 8 to E.F. Johnson Technologies in Irving, Texas, for architectural services.

The website also lists hundreds of product and service categories that a user can click on to see contracts from all state agencies. For instance, the “cafeteria and kitchen equipment” category shows the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded a $15,073 contract for delivery cart casters in April to Main Source Solutions in Verona.

Finally, users can search by vendor. For example, clicking on “Michelin North America” shows the state Transportation and Natural Resources departments awarded the Greenville, South Carolina company two contracts totaling $105,000 for tires in July.

This information is of value to other contractors seeking state business and citizens who want to track how their tax dollars are being spent. It’s their right to know, and it’s the law.

But the Government Accountability Board gets little money to administer the law and cannot punish agencies that ignore it.

A legislative committee has ordered an audit into the law’s application and whether there are existing ways to require agencies to comply. The board says it hopes to shame state agencies into following the law short of getting legislative authority to impose penalties.

But neither shame nor sanctions ought to be necessary. State agencies should simply follow the law, and if they don’t the governor should order them to do so.

It is the public’s right to know what contracts they are paying for.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Michael Buelow is a former Associated Press reporter and research director for the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (www.wisdc.org).