Q&A with Nevada Policy’s Lawrence on State Checkbook

Nevada officials recently unveiled the Nevada Open Finance Portal, also known as the state checkbook. This site, which offers a searchable database of state expenditures, came together through the work of State Controller Andy Matthews and his staff, along with the assistance of Nevada Policy’s Director of Research Geoffrey Lawrence. Both Matthews and Lawrence were working together at Nevada Policy more than a decade ago when they recognized the need for this tool. We sat down with Lawrence to get his thoughts on the state checkbook, the work that went into making it happen and what it means for Nevadans.

Nevada Policy: Can you explain how the Nevada state checkbook came into being?

Lawrence: In 2015, the legislature approved around $90 million for the development of a new statewide accounting system. Although that sounds like a lot of money, state systems must be custom designed because every state operates differently and is responsible for various reporting obligations on uses of federal grants, reports to beneficiaries on fiduciary accounts and other items that must be tracked separately. Nevada’s system was designed in the early 1980s by a vendor that’s no longer in business. Although the original vendor was acquired by Oracle, Nevada’s product is no longer supported. It’s also written in an old computer language called COBOL that most programmers don’t even learn anymore. This makes Nevada particularly vulnerable if some portion of the program breaks or is corrupted, because it becomes almost impossible to fix and could cause serious interruptions in state services.

When I was Nevada’s assistant controller, we launched the project to begin the design of the replacement system. However, these systems are massive and take years to design and implement. Unfortunately, after Steve Sisolak became governor and Catherine Byrne became controller, the project was insufficiently managed and ultimately had to be scrapped despite the state having spent $86 million.

If there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that a small amount of money remained available for upgrades to the accounting system, and the online checkbook fit within parameters. So, after former Nevada Policy President Andy Matthews was elected controller in 2022, he was able to find a vendor who could complete the project for a modest six-figure sum and asked the Board of Examiners to approve the contract. With the support of new Gov. Joe Lombardo as chair of the board, the contract was approved and we got to work.

Nevada Policy: What was your role in making the state checkbook a reality?

Lawrence: Controller Andy Matthews asked if I would participate in the design sessions and provide input. These sessions were held weekly over the course of a year and I was able to comment on features that should be added or enhanced to improve user understanding or access to the underlying data. Due to my prior experience in the controller’s office, I have a pretty good understanding of what data dimensions are available, and my understanding was also aided by my former colleague James Smack, who is again chief deputy controller, as well as the entire staff.

There were a few key challenges to negotiate. The mapping of state financial data can be complex and often requires some specialized knowledge over government financial standards. However, we were able to build in some frequently asked questions and definitions of terms intended to help guide the lay user. Overall, I think the design is generally user friendly and can be mastered by a lay user within a matter of minutes.

We were also able to build in a portal summarizing state payroll information, including payments made to state and local government retirees through the Public Employees’ Retirement System. This was perhaps more challenging than it sounds since PERS’ financial data exists on an entirely different mainframe than other state agencies, and state agencies don’t ordinarily have access to this data. In fact, there’s been a history of PERS moving its data offsite to be managed by a third-party vendor in order to avoid public records requests, so including this data on the state checkbook was a small feat.

Finally, I should mention that TransparentNevada.com, the repository of public employee payroll information that Nevada Policy has managed since 2008, is linked as a key resource on the state checkbook’s main page. The Nevada Policy database is compiled through responses to public records requests for payroll files ranging back to fiscal year 2007 and Controller Matthews and I launched that project together more than 15 years ago while working at Nevada Policy.

Nevada Policy: Why did it take so many years for Nevada to succeed in creating a state checkbook?

Lawrence: Great question. I just mentioned the launch of TransparentNevada.com. Nevada Policy originally took that project on because the state would not create an online checkbook.

In the mid-2000s, a big bipartisan push for financial transparency in government began sweeping the country after U.S. Sens. Tom Coburn and Barack Obama partnered to sponsor the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act. That law created the USAspending.gov website as the first major online searchable database of federal contract spending. States around the country began taking on similar initiatives, resulting in portals like the Ohio Checkbook.

We thought Nevada should have done the same and asked then-Gov. Jim Gibbons to lead the effort. The Gibbons Administration agreed it should be a priority but estimated it would cost $1 million to develop the portal. This was at a time when state revenues were deteriorating sharply in the wake of the subprime housing crisis and programs were being pared back. The Gibbons Administration simply couldn’t get legislative approval to spend money on a transparency website. In lieu of an online checkbook, the administration did create open.nv.gov, which didn’t host a real checkbook, but aggregated a number of financial reports that were available on other state websites.

In the intervening years, the politics of the issue never lined up the way they did in other states on a bipartisan basis. The state checkbook wasn’t a priority of the Sandoval Administration and likely would have faced legislative resistance through much of his tenure, anyway. The same could be said for the Sisolak years.

The key difference this time was that money had already been appropriated and fit within the scope of this project, and the right officeholders were in place between Gov. Lombardo and Controller Matthews.

Nevada Policy: How was the concept of a state checkbook received by those in power?

Lawrence: This will be an interesting question going forward. So far, the only direct vote on the checkbook was for the vendor contract that was approved by the Board of Examiners early last year. Gov. Lombardo has definitely been a supporter, but we haven’t yet heard any reactions from legislative leadership.

Nevada Policy: Why is the state checkbook an important step forward for transparency in Nevada?

Lawrence: For the first time, Nevada taxpayers can analyze state spending down to the level of individual checks. Previously, taxpayers were only able to see department-wide summaries of spending. They had no visibility into where the money was going or how it was being used. Now, taxpayers can not only look at check detail, but they can sort by vendor and see all checks issued to a single vendor since the database begins in 2019. They can see the different programs for which a vendor may have contracted. They can use this information to better inform a records request if they want to see the underlying contracts with a vendor, for example.

Department-wide spending summaries are no one’s idea of transparency. The online checkbook is Nevada’s first real foray into financial transparency.

Nevada Policy: What does the creation of a state checkbook mean for the average Nevadan?

Lawrence: Nevadans often pay more than they realize for the operation of state and local governments. Although Nevada enjoys a positive reputation as a historical low-tax state, state and local governments combined took in $10,966 per capita in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That’s a lot of money.

At the same time, Nevada has developed a poor reputation for the quality of its educational system and other key metrics of government performance. Where does all the money go and why is it unable to produce better results?

The first step to uncovering these answers is to give the public access to information about how it is currently being spent.

Nevada Policy: What are possible next steps for government transparency in our state?

Lawrence: The online checkbook was purposely engineered so that it can easily accommodate additional datasets from other governmental units in Nevada. At very little cost, it could provide similar transparency over Clark County, Washoe County and large cities and school districts. I know Controller Matthews plans to promote this ability to local governments across Nevada with the hope that the site can eventually serve as a one-stop shop for financial transparency across Nevada.