During my years as a newspaper reporter, I used to love digging up public records. I learned early in my career that it is one thing to be told information, but it is even better to sift through public documents when you want to know what is really going on in government.
I never forgot the importance of that lesson when I moved into elected office.
It is why, as a member of the Illinois General Assembly, I was an early sponsor of our state’s first Freedom of Information laws.
It is why, as Illinois state treasurer and now as comptroller, I have instructed my staff to promptly fulfill any records requests.
And it is why I most recently launched the Ledger (ledger.illinoiscomptroller.com), an online financial database that takes state government transparency to a whole new level.
In recent weeks, some have suggested that, as comptroller, I should also produce a “state checkbook” that documents every dime taxed and spent by Illinois government. In fact, that information request to our office asked for a “complete data dump” of state financial records.
But the state database, tracking revenues and expenditures, includes confidential information that the law prohibits from being given out – things like Social Security numbers and information about tax refunds, public aid and foster care payments, worker’s comp, and unemployment checks. A “complete data dump” would be illegal.
That is why last year I launched the Ledger, which makes public every state transaction that is allowable under the law. Specifically, the Ledger allows taxpayers to click their way through everything from the state’s daily receipts and bill backlog numbers to state agency budgets, contracts and expenses. The website also contains a state employee database, allowing taxpayers to view all public salaries and new hires.
We haven’t stopped there. In the time since, the Ledger has been expanded to include state vendor payment totals, state officer compensation, and the members and pay for all state boards and commissions. And more enhancements are in the works, including additional line-by-line detail about state vendor payments and links to their corresponding contracts.
I encourage all Illinois residents to check out the Ledger and let me know what other information would be helpful. If it’s legal, we’ll do it.
Because after all this state has been through, it’s not enough for the taxpayers to “hear” from government – they rightly want to see the proof. As a former reporter, I appreciate that.
Note to readers – Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican, is Illinois’ chief fiscal officer.