An effort to get Oklahoma to develop a centralized Web site for raw data has been derailed over fears of identity theft and additional bureaucracy.
House Bill 2318, by Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie, fell by a vote of 37-59 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives earlier this week. You can check out a video of the 40-minute debate on the measure here.
The bill would have provided a centralized place on the state’s Web site called data.ok.gov. State agencies could post their open data there for the public to download, much like the federal government’s data.gov site or Utah’s open data site:
The idea behind such sites is simple: spur innovation by providing bulk, open information to the public. It’s all part of the “mashup” movement that’s gaining traction worldwide. Some mashups are fairly simple, like matching a table of data with locations on a Web map. Others are more specialized and complex. The Web site ProgrammableWeb has a directory of some government-related mashups here.
Debate focuses on fear
Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, said he didn’t want data from his drivers license or tax returns to be public. But drivers license data is already closed under federal law. And state driving records are also closed, except for certain exceptions for insurance companies, researchers and other groups. State tax returns are not open records in Oklahoma.
Murphey said his bill applied only to information that was already covered by the state’s Open Records Act.
Still, Wright said he was worried about the integrity and accuracy of the data provided by state agencies. He expressed concerns over the “double-edged sword of openness in the area of government information” and noted the number of commercials warning against identity theft on the radio:
I’m concerned about the possibility of simple human error corrupting some of the data that could easily be corrected. … I’m concerned about the broad access of the data. The data in itself not necessarily good or bad, it’s what somebody does with the data. I don’t know where you interface with state government, but I interface with state government with my drivers license, my tax return, I guess right now the paycheck. But the information that the state has on me, I don’t necessarily think anybody should have access to that. I can’t see a legitimate lawful use of it for any other citizen of the state. There’s some data that I want the state to hold very much in confidence. You listen to the radio for an hour or two, you’ll hear an ad on identity theft. Somebody doesn’t need to get too much data on you to be able to execute that. I’m not a programmer, but you’re not far from getting data to getting access to having the backdoor into somebody’s computer system. It’s a double-edged sword about this openness. I certainly want to have the government accountable. We’re stewards of the information on the public, and I’m concerned about how we steward that information.
To me, Wright seems to be confusing the information the state keeps on him that is already closed with the broader goal of making state information that’s already public more accessible.
As someone who deals with government data for a living, I understand Wright’s concerns over inaccurate data. Rarely do I receive data without errors or omissions. But that’s also why it’s important to set up a structure whereby data can be released to the public.
Take the recent coverage of the data released from the federal government’s Recovery.gov site last year. Whatever your views over the effectiveness of the stimulus package, it was a huge effort to get the hundreds of thousands of recipients to report their stimulus funds in a consistent manner. And yes, because humans are behind every data set, there were mistakes. But because those mistakes were highlighted in numerous news articles, the government was fairly quick to make amends, proving that sunshine really is the best disinfectant:
When recipients reported in October, 2009 for February 17 – September 30, 2009, some recipients reported incorrect or invalid congressional districts. The code “ZZ” appears in place of those incorrect congressional districts.
In an e-mail this week, Murphey said he would keep trying to push for better technology in government:
I am committed to better explaining the importance of Government 2.0 to my colleagues and how it will enable the citizens to hold government responsible like never before possible. I plan on passing this legislation as soon as possible.”
(Full disclosure: The need to establish a data.ok.gov site was something I blogged about last month. I mentioned the need for that site to Rep. Murphey at a public event in late January.)
A House committee today moved forward a bill to expand the financial information on the state’s Open Books Web site.
Effective January 1, 2011, the Office of State Finance shall update the website with “Open Books 2.0,” an expanded online database through which each individual expenditure shall be listed individually separate of aggregated amount. The information shall be searchable by term including name of recipient, entity making expenditure and date of expenditure. The website shall allow members of the public to export sets of data produced by search query in a standardized exportable form. No later than eighteen (18) months after “Open Books 2.0” is online, the Office of State Finance shall create an online archive for each fiscal year, beginning with Fiscal Year 2011, which shall be accessible and searchable to online users.
As a data geek, I’m happy to see the bill include language that would allow the financial data to be downloaded. That’s a key part of government transparency in the digital age.
HB 3422 passed the committee unanimously. It now moves to the House floor.
That might be an overly dramatic headline to this post, but it could be a question that never gets answered if a bill to close off the birth dates of public employees becomes law.
Senate Bill 1753, by Sen. Debbe Leftwich, D-Oklahoma City, passed out of the Senate yesterday with no debate by a vote of 44-0. It now moves to the House.
Our Capitol reporter Julie Bisbee has today’s coverage here.
In the face of misinformation over identity theft, SB 1753 has picked up support from several state employee associations, including the Oklahoma Public Employees Association and some law enforcement unions.
OPEA sent out an “action alert” to its members yesterday playing on the fears over identity theft:
OPEA Action Alert – Keep Your Private Information
Private Protect State Employee Private Information More Info
Contact your Senator today!
Contact your state Senator today to ask them to support SB 1753 by Leftwich , which requires state agencies to keep your birth date confidential. This bill is on the Senate agenda and could come up any time.
Currently, public jurisdictions must disclose private information about employees including, name, compensation, and date of birth. SB 1753 excludes employees’ birth date from the information that agencies are mandated to provide to the public.
State employees’ duties often bring them in contact with the public in safety, protection of the most vulnerable and regulatory functions. Child welfare workers, corrections and probation officers, or benefit workers can be stalked by criminals or disgruntled members of the public with whom they have come in contact through the performance of their job duties. Employees’ birthdates can also be used by identity thieves to access bank accounts and credit of public workers.
Help OPEA protect state employee identities! Contact your Senator today!
I’m sure the leaders at OPEA mean well, but I don’t see how knowing a date of birth would make it any easier for stalkers to find the employees they mention. Unfortunately, that argument was picked up by the House author of the bill, Rep. Randy Terrill:
Terrill, R-Moore, said he’s concerned people could use birth date information to retaliate against correctional officers, state troopers, drug agents and others involved in public safety.
“I believe very strongly in the public’s right to know, but I also believe very strongly that just because you become a public employee doesn’t mean that your entire life history is a matter of open record,” Terrill said.
Current law does not allow disclosure of public employees’ social security numbers, home telephone numbers or addresses:
Public bodies shall keep confidential the home address, telephone numbers and social security numbers of any person employed or formerly employed by the public body.
Property records, and by extension, most home addresses, are already publicly available. You can inspect them at every courthouse in the state, and many counties now allow searching online. (Oklahoma County is here.) I still have heavy phone books delivered to my house with thousands of addresses, so I don’t consider that particularly sensitive information. But I do understand the concern expressed by some law enforcement employees.
Of course, the media doesn’t always make the best case for why public records should remain open and accessible. But with this issue, we’re not just crying wolf.
My colleague John Estus and I ran a simple computer database analysis of the state payroll and the registered sex offender list. We found at least 778 state employees who shared a first and last name with those on the sex offender list. From the box that ran with Bisbee’s story:
Using Birth Dates
An example: Are employees sex offenders?
A comparison of January’s state payroll data to the state sex offender registry reveals 778 state employees share first and last names with registered sex offenders. Without dates of birth, it is impossible to determine whether those workers may be sex offenders. State employees who share the names of sex offenders include:
- Child care workers
- A state Supreme Court justice
- Doctors, nurses and other health care workers
- State troopers
- Prison workers
- Juvenile affairs workers
- Law enforcement investigators
- Drug enforcement agents
- University workers
Of course, we’d never publish a story that matched just the names of state employees and sex offenders. To do so would be irresponsible. But without another identifier, like date of birth*, it would be impossible to narrow down the results or even do that type of story in the first place.
And it’s not just checking the criminal history of public employees, something that is presumably done in background checks when they are first hired. Bankruptcies, liens, judgments and other civil matters are also important.
In fact, when our City Hall reporter Bryan Dean requested the date of birth of a city of Oklahoma City employee who is under investigation in the misuse of public funds, the city denied his request. When it finally relented, Dean found out the employee had filed for bankruptcy, something that could have been useful to know for both the city and the public.
If SB 1753 succeeds, then public employees would be afforded more privacy rights than registered voters in the state. As I’ve mentioned before, about 2 million names, addresses and dates of birth of registered voters are already available for a fee from the state Election Board:
The Oklahoma State Election Board sells lists of registered voters to anyone willing to pay its fees. Among the information on there? Dates of birth.
Those voter registration lists are used by political campaigns, academics and commercial database providers such as Lexis-Nexis and Accurint. We buy the data annually for internal fact-checking purposes.
Fran Roche, assistant secretary at the Election Board, said the state brings in between $16,000 to $18,000 a year selling those voter registration lists. The board generally gets about 250 orders for voter registration lists each year.
This is just a guess, but I’m sure most lawmakers–including Leftwich and Terrill–have used that voter information data in their campaigns to target voters by both precinct and age.
P.S. For the record, my date of birth is 6/27/75.
The folks over at the Oklahoma Policy Institute released a report this morning on Oklahoma’s numerous tax credits, incentives and rebates. In short, they call for greater transparency and more consistent reviews of existing incentives. From their conclusion:
Rather than accept all tax preferences that are currently in law, or reject them en masse as giveaways to special interests, we hope this brief can be valuable in improving the state‘s tax expenditure system and ensure that in the area of tax preferences, as in the area of direct budgetary expenditures, the state is allocating public resources in the best possible fashion.
Using information from the Oklahoma Tax Commission’s Tax Expenditure Reports and some data from the state’s Open Books site, the report estimates that $5.6 billion in tax expenditures were claimed or used in fiscal year 2008, an increase of $1 billion since 2006. To put that in some perspective, the Legislature appropriated about $7.1 billion in 2008.
Tax expenditures are an extremely prevalent and popular policy instrument in Oklahoma. The most recent Tax Expenditure Report prepared by the Oklahoma Tax Commission (OTC) identifies over 450 separate provisions of state law that provide for some reduction in the amount of state taxes that would have been collected but for the preferential tax treatment benefiting some favored activity or category of taxpayer.
The report makes it clear that the Tax Commission reports likely underestate the total amount of tax expenditures each year. That’s because some programs, such as Quality Jobs, are rebate payments and not tax credits. The state spent about $63.7 million on Quality Jobs payments in FY 2008, and lawmakers have expanded the program almost every year since it took effect in 1993. Other incentives apply not to income taxes, but to gross production taxes on energy production or taxes on insurance premiums.
Some tax credits, such as the rural and small business venture capital credits, have come under fire in recent years in several cases of alleged abuse. The institute’s report touches on this issue:
In at least one prominent instance involving a number of credits intended to encourage venture capital, the [Oklahoma Tax Commission] discovered evidence that investors were exploiting loopholes in the law to claim the credit in unintended, but legal, ways. In one year, the cost of the program soared from $2 million to $66 million, as investors found ways to claim tax credits without putting funds at risk. The Legislature stepped in to amend the law in 2006, and one of the affected credits, the Venture Capital Credit, was allowed to sunset out of existence in 2008. However, the other credits — the Small Business Capital Credit and Rural Small Business Capital Credit — continue to operate and have seen their fiscal impact snowball in recent years amidst allegations of abuse.
For another perspective on those specific tax credits, check out Nick Baker’s Prowling Owl blog. Meanwhile, at the Capitol yesterday, Sen. Tom Adelson, D-Tulsa, called for an end to several tax credits, claiming the state could save up to $259 million a year.
The Oklahoma Policy Institute report also calls attention to the work by the Incentive Review Committee, set up in 2004 by Senate Bill 1516. That committee has studied several incentives over the last few years, but at times it has been stymied by a lack of available data.
Here’s what the institute recommends in its report:
- Expand Oklahoma’s Tax Expenditure Report to provide more detailed and comprehensive information.
- Expand the Openbooks.ok.gov website to cover a fuller range of tax expenditures and provide more aggregated information.
- Consider exempting certain tax credits and/or information on individual taxpayers claiming credits below threshold amounts from the Openbooks.gov website.
- Integrate the information currently provided separately in the Tax Expenditure Report and Openbooks.gov
- Add sunset provisions to all tax incentives that are not currently sunsetted.
- Enact a statutory requirement that before any sunsetted incentive can be reauthorized, it must undergo a formal “performance review” and legislative recommendation by the Incentive Review Committee or similar entity.
- Strengthen ongoing monitoring and evaluation of existing tax credits.
- Develop a unified economic development budget that compiles information on all forms of development spending, including direct expenditures and tax incentives.
- Establish formal eligibility processes for new and existing incentive programs.
- Promote accountability by creating and enforcing standards for companies receiving incentives.
- Limit the cost impact of existing and future tax incentives through caps on overall amounts.
- Limit the cost impact of existing and future tax expenditures through triggers that would suspend or reduce selected preferences in times of budget shortfalls.
The site should allow users to download the database into a spreadsheet.
Late this afternoon, Oklahoma’s stimulus site unveiled a new section that tracks spending in the state. The revamp has been in the works for several months. It’s accessible by going to the “Recovery Spending” link in the upper right corner of the main site.
Here’s what the technology team from the Office of State Finance said in the e-mail announcing the new section:
We are happy to announce this afternoon that Oklahoma Recovery Spending Data was made available to the public on the Oklahoma Recovery Web site at Recovery.ok.gov.
In addition to being able to drill-down through Function of Government/State Agencies, you can also view award summaries and award details. Finally, the raw data is also available for you to download.
I’ll have a full report later, but here’s a few early screenshots of how parts of the interactive dashboards look (click images for a closer look):
UPDATE: 2/5/10: Officials at the Ethics Commission pointed out that their downloadable data now includes the lobbyist names going back to 2006. In previous downloads of the data, that didn’t appear, so my apologies for not noticing that earlier this week. I’ve updated our database to reflect that additional information and added an option to download the entire data set.
Capitol Bureau reporter Michael McNutt had a recent story on the latest batch of reports from lobbyists, including details about the new limits on gift giving:
In two years, the amount reported being given to lawmakers has dropped by nearly two-thirds, records show.
The drop in gift-giving totals can be attributed to a law that went into effect July 1, 2008. It reduced the amount lobbyist employers can spend on individual lawmakers, state elected officials and state employees from $300 to $100 each calendar year.
In 2009, lobbyists reported spending about $74,839 on legislators, records show. In 2008, lobbyists reported spending about $159,650 on gifts to legislators; they reported spending about $208,000 on legislators in 2007.
New for this update is the addition of the names of the lobbyists who gave gifts. The Ethics Commission began collecting that information in the second half of 2009. Here’s the totals for the top 10 lobbyists who gave gifts, although for some reason, the University of Oklahoma didn’t list its lobbyist names:
In his story, McNutt also notes that Oklahoma State University officials had not filed their reports for the second half of the year because of an oversight. They had still not filed as of today, so the update to our database does not include the latest OSU reports.
(Full Disclosure: My wife, Jennifer, who works for the House of Representatives, appears several times in the database under both her married name and maiden name, Mock.)
It’s been a big day for budgets today. First, President Obama released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2011 early this morning.
Then, moments after Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry finished his State of State address at the Capitol, the Office of State Finance released Henry’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
But this one caught my eye:
Capture Sales Tax on the Sale of Electronically Delivered Items
The Governor’s budget proposes the collection of sales tax be extended to include the sale of items delivered electronically that would otherwise be taxed if delivered physically. This would include items such as computer software transferred electronically, digital movies, digital songs, digital books, etc. The total increase in collections from this change is $3.46 million.
If the Legislature goes along with Henry’s proposal, then Oklahoma would join 18 other states that tax downloaded music, movies and books in some way. That could mean your Kindle downloads, iTunes music and movies and streaming movies from Netflix could be assessed a sales tax for the first time in the state. There’s no word yet on whether this proposal would also allow cities and counties to capture their share of the sales tax on those digital downloads.
For more information on these e-taxes, check out the following links:
Americans for Tax Reform’s Stop eTaxes site