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Government

‘This website is useless’: Colorado lawmakers propose tweak to state’s online checkbook

When state Rep. Janice Rich fires up Colorado’s online checkbook, she gets frustrated.

The website was created in 2009 with the goal of letting taxpayers track how the state government was spending billions of dollars.

But Rich says her constituents in Grand Junction are not able to follow the money.

“You see a ton of entries that don’t have a vendor name,” she said from her Capitol office. “There is no information who was awarded the contract (and government money). Without that information, I believe this website is useless.”

Rich, a Republican, is sponsoring House Bill 22-1108. It would require the state to update the checkbook system to display the name of every person or organization the government is exchanging money with.

Many entries in the checkbook already do reveal that information.

For example, KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio used the online checkbook in 2020 to view travel expense reimbursement checks the state had written to Texas journalists with the goal of securing positive tourism coverage.

But while the names of those journalists were visible in the online checkbook along with the amounts they were reimbursed by the government, many other entries do not allow the public to see who exactly is receiving the government money.

The vendor name box simply displays as “not entered.”

“Let’s be transparent,” Rich said. “Let’s let the constituents know where that money’s going.”

Rich said some of her constituents in Grand Junction came to her asking for help because they could not use the website to see who was receiving some government contracts.

“There’s a lot of entries (in the checkbook), but for some reason, they don’t want to put the names there,” she said.

The online checkbook, known officially as the Transparency Online Project, is managed by the state’s Department of Personnel and Administration.

Spokesman Doug Platt says some vendor names are missing because the state does not legally require them to be entered into the reporting system.

“We comply with the statute as it is currently written,” Platt said.

His department estimates the vendor names could be added at no additional cost to the state.

Two years ago, Rocky Mountain Community Radio invited Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition executive director Jeff Roberts to the state Capitol to test drive the online checkbook.

The review wasn’t pretty.

The checkbook was slow to load and difficult to search. Rocky Mountain Community Radio also discovered it was not being updated regularly, despite a state law mandating updates every five days.

“There was never any funding or staffing associated with the development of this system,” Platt said at the time.

The state tweaked the website last spring to provide faster load times and daily updates.

Rich’s bill to require the vendor names in the checkbook was originally scheduled for its first public hearing Feb. 10.

But Rich says she postponed the hearing after Gov. Jared Polis’ office reached out to her about the legislation.

“His office would like to meet with me to discuss ways that we can improve this before we have a committee meeting,” she said.

Asked for his thoughts on the bill, a spokesperson for the governor’s office sent the following written statement:

"We share Rep. Rich’s objectives for enhancing transparency across government and look forward to having further conversations with Rep Rich to learn more about her specific objectives with this legislation."

Several other Republican lawmakers are listed as co-sponsors of the bill. Rich is hopeful it will advance some time this session.

This is taxpayer money,” she said. “This is their money that's being used to pay for these. So why would you want to keep it a secret?”

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.