St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Editorial: Illinois comptroller throws open the windows

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Illinois taxpayers, as well as those with a taste for financial horror shows, now have a convenient place for finding out how the state spends its money. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka this month has been traveling the state touting an online site she calls "The Ledger" which puts most of the state's financial data in one handy site.

Wondering how much cash the state general fund and three education funds had on hand on Monday? The state started the day with $44,157,392.12. It took in $134,728,707.43. It transferred $95,917,103.57 to other accounts and wrote $42,238,226.57 worth of checks.

Forty-two million bucks worth of bills paid in one day? That should pretty much take care of it, right?

No. The Ledger reports that on Monday, the state had 217,618 outstanding bills totaling more than $6 billion. Ms. Topinka told us she figures there are another $2 billion worth of bills that haven't been turned in yet. When it comes to slow-paying its vendors, Illinois wrote the book.

The Republican comptroller and her staff have performed a valuable public service in creating this site. Most of the information already was available, but you'd have to know where to look and have a calculator handy.

Ms. Topinka told us that one of The Ledger's most popular features is the state salary database. "It's become a water-cooler thing," she said, with state employees checking what other people around the office are getting paid.

This doesn't work for state university employees, however. The comptroller's office issues checks to the various universities, which are not obligated under law to report salaries. Considering the $2.6 billion in taxes spent on higher education, people have a right to know who gets what.

In Missouri, all state employee salaries, including those at universities, are public. The Missouri Accountability Portal, instituted in 2007 by then-Gov. Matt Blunt, contains many of the features of Ms. Topinka's Ledger.

Given Illinois' problems with pay-to-play, potentially one of the most valuable features of the website is the database for state contracts, which is cross-tabulated with the state Board of Elections list of campaign contributions. This feature could give you an idea of why your competitor got a contract and you didn't.

Illinois' most crushing financial obligation is its $83 billion in unfunded pension obligations. Currently, The Ledger doesn't deal with pensions, but Ms. Topinka hopes to add a fund-by-fund, employee-by-employee accounting of who is due what.

That could be particularly enlightening, particularly for lawmakers who have other public jobs, or who can slide into a cushy state job on retirement. Which is why we suspect the Legislature never will let her get away with it.