Massachusetts opens state's "checkbook" for public review

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is in need of a political reformation. The state’s last three Speakers of the House, all Democrats, have been convicted of felonies. Last week Salvatore DiMasi (pictured, right), the most recent of the disgraced former Speakers, entered a Kentucky prison to begin an eight year sentence for corruption.

Beyond the shadows of the Massachusetts Statehouse, the Office of the Governor  has now come under scrutiny.  According to a new report,  the administrations of the last three Massachusetts Governors, all Republicans, failed to save office e-mails, meaning crucial documents that would’ve shown how the state does business have vanished from record.

These findings, uncovered by the Boston Globe on Wednedsay, cast yet another pall on the state’s efforts at transparency. But there may yet be hope for a new era of responsive, accountable government in the commonwealth.

Earlier this week, Massachusetts launched a new website called “Open Checkbook,” a massive database that tracks state spending and contracts. The website’s data includes big-picture information, like a pie chart with a subject-by-subject breakdown of how the state is spending its fiscal year 2011 budget of $51.3 billion; according to the site, 20 percent  -- or about $10 billion -- of that total will be spent on Medicaid payments, which makes up the biggest chunk of the budget.

But Open Checkbook goes much deeper than a simple pie chart. One section of the site lists employee salaries, which can be indexed by employee name, department, job title -- or, perhaps most interestingly, by total compensation.  Ranked in this way, it becomes clear that the most lucrative state jobs can be found at the University of Massachusetts: Of the 50 highest-paid state employees, 48 of them work at UMass.

The list reveals that Michael Collins (pictured, right), Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is the highest-paid public employee in Massachusetts, earning $717,758 during the last fiscal year. That number is actually a decrease from Collins’ earnings in fiscal year 2010 of $739,900, which also appears on Open Checkbook.

Former employees at the University of Massachusetts are also responsible for the largest pensions in the state, according to the website.  Nine out of the top 11 public pension plans in the state, all of which are over $159,000 annually, go to former UMass professors or administrators.

Another facet of Open Checkbook allows users to drill down into the state’s vendor payments.  That database is exhaustive, ranging from the $435 million paid to the Boston Public Health Commission, to a $1.02 Medicaid payment made to the Franklin Medical Group on September 30, 2011.

While an admirable effort at transparency, Open Checkbook is not complete, as fully 28 percent of the state’s spending falls under a series of exemptions which are listed on the website. Nevertheless, the site is a welcome tool in a state often mired in political scandal, and a step toward Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez’s stated goal of “rebuilding the public’s trust in government.”

To that end, not even the governor himself, who also championed the project, is exempt from the site’s data net: According to Open Checkbook, Deval Patrick is the state’s 1,541st highest-paid employee, with total compensation of $129,111 last fiscal year.

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