Budget & Tax

Have Tax Dollars, Will Travel

April 14, 2009

Steve Anderson

A few years ago in a column published in the state's largest newspaper, OCPA's Brandon Dutcher teamed up with U.S. Senator Tom Coburn to suggest that Oklahoma should establish a website which would allow taxpayers to see where their money is being spent (‘State spending Web site needed," The Oklahoman, October 18, 2006).

Five months later on National Review Online, Stephen Spruiell credited OCPA with helping to start a nationwide trend: "One state-based think tank, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), has adopted another national idea to the state level and thus started a trend of its own. Inspired by the work of Sens. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) and Barack Obama (D., Ill.) on the creation of a searchable online database of federal contracts and grants, OCPA began to push the state legislature to do something similar for taxpayers in Oklahoma. Last October, in an op-ed calling for a state-funding website, Coburn and OCPA vice president Brandon Dutcher wrote, ‘Many taxpayers ... may be aware that their tax dollars have paid for things like rooster shows and ghost employees and $100 car washes, but these things are just the tip of the iceberg.'"

Table 1 and Table 2

The tip of the iceberg, indeed. And now that the transparency website, OpenBooks (openbooks.ok.gov), is up and running in Oklahoma, it's becoming easier to find government waste.

Thanks to Table 1 on the previous page, we already know there's excessive employment in Oklahoma's higher education system. So when higher-ed officials recently indicated they might need to raise tuition to compensate for reduced state funding, I decided to take my own tour of Oklahoma's transparency website to see how our state's institutions of higher learning spend our money.

I am a CPA in private practice, and as part of our firm's normal functions I evaluate operations for clients. I have developed a modus operandi for seeing through the fog of thousands of transactions in order to grasp the real operational philosophy of an organization. Executive and employee attitudes about the entity are often seen in how they spend the entity's money on what many would think are inconsequential items. Do they treat the entity's funds like their personal expense account? Do they live "high on the hog" on the entity's dollar? The answers to these questions help discern attitudes that, more times than not, will carry over to the organization's management style at every level of operations.

Using the transparency website, I looked at higher education's "attitude" toward their spending of Oklahoma citizens' dollars, starting with the area of non-operational administrative spending. This area of spending is small enough to allow a good overview, but more importantly, the existence and nature of the transactions can be quite telling. I used the vendor list to look for oddities in expenditures.

Most of us know that college professors are highly paid and work relatively short hours in great working conditions with little or no real pressure. But do they also have a sushi benefit? The University of Oklahoma spent $116,053 on sushi in FY-2008. Oklahoma State University spent $199,610 on sushi in the same year. Both of these bills were paid to Sushi with Gusto, which is a food-court provider of sushi to universities.

According to Sushi with Gusto's website, the company provides sushi services and the university receives revenues of 25 percent of the company's sales to students and others that eat at their shop in the food court. One might expect these revenues could help offset costs and help keep tuition and fees down, but instead the money is apparently used to help fund the consumption of sushi. What's more, OU also paid $141,924 to Starbucks Coffee.

Even though these transactions are not big dollars in the scope of the total higher education budget, they reveal an attitude of entitlement. It would be naïve to assume that there is a completely different attitude in higher education's approach to the rest of their budget.

Another area where I often see frivolous spending is in perks of employment where executives and/or employees enjoy "non-taxable" benefits. Travel to conventions, conferences, and continuing education seminars are prime examples of these types of perks. And it's interesting that these conventions tend to be held in tourist destinations such as Las Vegas or Hawaii, and that the hotels and resorts are on the upper end of the cost spectrum.

It's telling which hotels appeared on OU's and OSU's vendor list. No Comfort Inn or Best Western made the list.

Now some of these travel expenditures may be perfectly reasonable, but within the $65 million spent in FY-2008 by our state's higher education institutions on travel, there is good reason to question higher education officials' stewardship.

A review of every higher-ed expenditure is beyond the scope of this article, but OCPA encourages citizens to spend some time on the transparency website and do some detective work of their own. You'll see, for example, that OU also paid $209,990 to National Public Radio, $51,430 to the Oklahoma Gazette, and $35,500 to the New York Times last year. And there's no telling what else you might find (if it's interesting, please write me at fincpatax@hotmail.com and tell me about it).

By focusing thousands of eyes on frivolous, careless, and just plain wasteful spending that is being done with your tax dollars, we can start to expose the unacceptable patterns of abuse that are apparently being practiced-not only in higher education, but throughout state government.

Steve Anderson (MBA, University of Central Oklahoma) is an OCPA research fellow and a Certified Public Accountant with more than 20 years of experience in private practice. He spent two years as a budget analyst in the Oklahoma Office of State Finance.