FILE - Ascension Parish Open Finance

A screenshot of Ascension Parish's Open Finance portal.

(The Center Square) – Louisiana's Ascension Parish is taking steps to provide heightened taxpayer accountability.

Mirroring the Louisiana Checkbook, a state fiscal transparency website, elected officials in the southeastern Louisiana parish have opted to display public finances on a searchable online portal.

The move is the latest local effort to allow taxpayers user-friendly access to important financial information. The site is intended to show the types of revenue collected as well as how public money is allocated.

“I promised the residents of Ascension Parish an open and transparent parish government,” Ascension Parish President Clinton Cointment said. “To help fulfill that promise, this Open Finance system provides you with access to the finances of Ascension Parish Government.”

The Open Finance portal will incorporate data in phases, starting with “Operating Budget Revenues and Expenses.” The site already shows $166.12 million in 2021 projected revenues and an operating budget of $253.1 million.

Weekly updates are said to occur early Sunday mornings. Vendor transactions and payroll information will be integrated in the near future, Cointment said.

“Taxpayers should know where the government is spending their tax dollars. It’s great to see Ascension Parish creating a transparency website so residents can see how the government is using their money,” the New Orleans-based Pelican Institute for Public Policy said on Twitter.

Annual budgets and financial reports are listed on the parish’s Department of Finance website, which boasts awards from the Government Finance Officers Association. The new financial transparency initiative could serve as a model for other parishes to follow.

The Lafayette Parish School System was the first local government entity in Louisiana to launch a financial transparency website. It did so in 2018. The Lafayette Consolidated Government created a community-wide online financial transparency tool called “OpenBook” in January.

“It allows taxpayers to see exactly how tax dollars are spent,” Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory said.

St. Tammany Parish also hosts a taxpayer accountability portal, along with libraries of budget documents, public meeting minutes and video meetings that can be viewed through a program called “Open Door.”

Transparency advocates such as the American Legislative Exchange Council contend “knowing how tax dollars are being spent helps taxpayers and policymakers make fully informed decisions on the proper role of government.”

The Sunlight Foundation, a national open government group based in Washington, asserts that technology and access to public information is critical to democracy, even at the local level.

“We believe that information is power, or, to put it more finely, disproportionate access to information is power,” the group said.