The Mississippi Center for Public Policy last week launched an online database of all spending by the State of Mississippi since fiscal year 2004 at SeeTheSpending.org. The user friendly web page allows Mississippians to search by date, agency, vendor, and spending category and the organization hopes it will be a tool to find areas of government spending that can be cut.

"It is critical, especially under current circumstances, that the state spend our taxes only on essential functions of government and eliminate those that are outside the proper role of government and those that are simply nice to have if you can afford them," said MCPP President Forest Thigpen.

The data covers 137 state agencies and over 3 million transactions. It is updated monthly. Thigpen explained the importance of this project, "We believe America's Founders were right when they said that the legitimate power of government comes from the consent of the governed. But in order to exercise that power appropriately, 'the governed' need to know what their government is doing. SeeTheSpending.org is a powerful tool to help people see what their government is doing with their money."

Not available yet at the web site, but coming soon, will be state contracts, searchable spending on the county level, state and county revenue, and school spending. State employee salaries are not listed. MCPP obtained the information from the State of Mississippi and reimbursed the state for the computer programming costs necessary to fill their request for this public data.

In its first week more than 3000 visits generated more than 34,000 page views. The site provides a great research tool for citizens or journalists or legislators looking for places to make cuts or answer spending questions. I took the web site for test drive.

After the unsealing of the State Farm Insurance vs Attorney General Jim Hood lawsuit, it was revealed in the February 2008 dismissal of the lawsuit that each side paid its own attorney fees. I was curious on how much those fees cost Mississippi. Hood was represented by J. Lawson Hester, Danny Cupit and William Liston. A simple search at SeeTheSpending.org reveals the Office of Attorney General paid the Law Office of Danny E. Cupit $41,166.11 in March of 2008; and paid Liston & Lancaster PLLC $15,300.95 in January of 2008 and $9,849.91 in April of 2008.

While looking at the Office of Attorney General, I did a quick search on how much the office spent on food for meetings. In June 2010 - the final month of that fiscal year - the office spent more than $95,000 on food for events involving "State Prosecutor Education" at the Imperial Palace in Biloxi and "Crime Victim Compensation" at the Pearl River Resort in Philadelphia.

In fiscal year 2010, the Office of Attorney General spent $32,656 on another line item: "Travel Related Registration." That isn't the cost of travel or accommodations, just registration. The House of Representatives spent more than $50,000 on registrations; the state Senate spent $8,854 on the same. The Office of State Auditor only spent ten dollars on "Travel Related Registration" for fiscal year 2010. All agencies combined spent $392,303.88 on registrations last budget year.

Next I plugged a few legislators into the company search database at the Secretary of State's website to find companies listing those legislators as officers, and plugged those companies in at SeeTheSpending.org to see if the state spent money with them. District 45 Representative Bennett Malone is listed as an officer (specifically an incorporator) of Malone Tractor & Equipment in Carthage. However, he is not listed on any recent filings as an officer of the company so presumably he has disconnected himself from that company. Among others, Malone sits on the Forestry Committee, Transportation Committee, and Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Committee. Between November of 2003 and July 2010 a number of state agencies (the Forestry Commission, Department of Transportation, Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, and others) spent $164,712.95 with Malone Tractor & Equipment.

I do not suggest that the spending was in anyway improper or that any state agency failed to follow the appropriate protocols in making the purchases. But a competitor to Malone Tractor & Equipment might determine they can offer a better deal. Or Bennett Malone might be surprised at this and stress to purchasing agents that they should not make decisions because they think he is connected to this company. Or those who make purchasing decisions can become more determined to ensure protocols are followed so there can be no questions. Transparency increases accountability.

Transparency also opens up spending cut opportunities to engaged citizens. This will be a tough budget year for legislators and they will be looking for areas to make cuts. Citizens can use this tool to search prior spending and make informed suggestions for trimming spending.


Brian Perry is a partner with a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms.