In his first-ever press conference as governor last November, Mark Gordon made a pledge to his new constituency to make fiscal transparency his No. 1 priority in his first year in office.
A little more than a year later, one of the biggest steps to accomplishing that has been checked off the list.
Friday, Gordon’s office announced the launch of Wyoming Sense, described as a budget transparency website offering residents an easy way to navigate his state budget plan.
“Wyoming Sense will provide Wyoming citizens insight and clarity to our budgeting process, which can sometimes be confusing,” Gordon said in a statement. “This initiative continues my efforts to increase transparency of our state government. It makes sense for Wyoming’s citizens to know and understand who provides Wyoming’s income, and how taxpayer dollars are being spent.”
Wyoming Sense joins a second website, WyoOpen.gov, launched by the executive branch to bolster government transparency this year. That website, launched by State Auditor Kristi Racines in June, is dedicated exclusively to documenting the state’s expenditures.
What does the site do?
Simply stated, Wyoming Sense allows visitors to take a magnifying glass to every dollar in the budget, allowing citizens the ability to learn exactly how the state pays its bills by breaking down spending in an easy-to-understand format that budget books alone cannot offer.
The state’s Department of Corrections, for example, gets $273 million out of its $289 million budget from the state’s general fund, with the remaining 6 percent of its budget coming from a mix of federal and other sources — a fact that can be quickly gleaned from the governor’s budget book.
You have free articles remaining.
What the budget book does not capture, however, is precisely how those funds are spent. For example, clicking on the Department of Corrections page on Wyoming Sense will bring you to a landing page describing the primary functions of the department as well as its number of employees, its obligations (i.e. inmate counts) and other information to help the curious understand precisely where their money is going.
A more complicated example is the Wyoming Department of Education, whose $326 million budget includes just $18.9 million from the state’s general fund, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars available for the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges — a fact Wyoming Sense helps illustrate with graphics that can quickly break down the share of funds given to each department and narratives for how that money is spent.
Where the site does fall short is moving beyond the macro levels of funding. For example, of the total amount of funding the education department receives, 97 percent of that budget directly flows to schools and other education providers while the other 3 percent funds the administration and oversight of various state and federal programs that support those efforts. However, the site does not offer breakdowns of that 97 percent or that 3 percent, leaving it up to an individual to research those facts themselves using the departments’ individual budget requests available through the Division of Administration and Budget. Each of those can be dozens — if not more than 100 — pages long.
While the new website conquers one of the biggest roadblocks to understanding the state’s finances — namely, the difficulty of deciphering the thousands of numbers that make up the budget — the site will also help Wyomingites to avoid the headache of tracking changing allocations of spending as the Legislature dukes it out with the governor over the winter.
One of the most difficult things to do during even-numbered Legislative sessions, where the state’s two-year budget is hammered out, is keeping track of the give-and-take between different departments as bills are passed and funding requests are either approved or denied by members of the Joint Committee on Appropriations, whose attitudes toward spending can often conflict with the governor and, more often than not, with one another.
While Gordon’s website only outlines the details in his current budget, the website will — according to a news release — be updated to reflect any changes to that budget approved by the Wyoming Legislature during the heat of the 2020 budget session.
Early indications show that might happen more often than expected. Though the governor’s recommended budget includes few cuts to services, he proposed slashing capital construction funding by more than a third while denying a significant amount of funding requested by the University of Wyoming — an allocation the school is likely to push back on.
The battle lines will likely come into cleaner focus next month, when the Joint Appropriations Committee will have an opportunity to meet with the governor for the first time to discuss specific numbers ahead of the 2020 legislative session. The weeklong meeting will kick off at 8:30 a.m. Dec. 9 in the state Capitol.
The 2020 budget session gavels in on Feb. 10 and is scheduled to run through March 12.