The Bulletin Board

The good, the bad, and the ugly of tracking state and federal spending

By: - June 23, 2021 1:14 pm
An American flag sticking out of a pile of paper money

Democrats, who barely control the split 50-50 Senate, initially sought to advance legislation that would have increased the national debt limit. (Getty Images)

This story was updated June 23, 2021 at 1:30 p.m. with new information.

Does the federal government spend more on defense or health care? What percentage of the federal budget has gone to COVID-19 rental assistance? How about energy conservation?

The UNH Carsey School of Public Policy just released FedGovSpend, an app that answers those questions quickly and in one place. (Answer key: Health care; .40 percent; .02 percent.)

If only it were as easy to decipher the proposed two-year, $13.5 billion budget lawmakers will vote on Thursday.

The state Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant provides loads of budget information in one place on its website. You can compare the governor’s proposed budget against the House and Senate versions. There’s no shortage of line-item details. Go through the 4,326 pages of budget requests from state agencies and you’ll see the Department of Safety asked for $5.8 million for overtime for fiscal year 2021. But there’s no way to search for something specific or compare spending from one year to the next.

And there’s no plans to translate all that information a state version of FedGovSpend.

“We thought about the state budget,” said Michael Ettlinger, director of the Carsey School who developed the app with colleague Jordan Hensley. “But part of the challenge is that the federal government has much better data than not just New Hampshire, but almost any other state.”

It took Ettlinger and Hensley about a year of part-time work to build the app because most of the data was easily accessible and Ettlinger’s former job included federal budget research. “If we had to go through every line of the federal budget or (Congressional Budget Office) report, you couldn’t do it.”

The state makes tracking its spending of $982 million in pandemic aid much easier. Its “transparency map” can tell you how much entertainment sites received from the Live Venue Relief Fund, what a particular town got, and even how much a certain business received. The complaint about federal pandemic aid has been Gov. Chris Sununu’s authority to spend that money without legislative approval.

While the state budget process allows the public to weigh in on each spending item (except after the Senate makes its final changes), the pandemic aid has involved no legislative vote. Even the Executive Council, which must approve all state contracts over $10,000, has been told how the money is being spent but not allowed to weigh in. Democratic lawmakers challenged Sununu’s spending authority last year in court but lost. The judge ruled an existing state law permits spending without approval in times of emergency.

That would change if this budget passes. 

Lawmakers have included a requirement that during future states of emergency, the governor must get approval from the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee to spend any private or federal aid totaling more than $100,000. It’s one of several proposed law changes from lawmakers determined to play more of a role during emergencies. 

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

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