The Business of Government:
Uncovering Good Stories in Local
Government Budgets, Taxes and
Contracts
John Cheves
Lexington...
The Business of Government

Follow the money
What I learned in Liberty County:
Get the records, data and numbers, and
then...
The Business of Government

Compared to what?
The need for context
Budgets

Up or down,
winners and
losers
Photo by jjMustang_79
Budgets
How do the biggest departments spend it?
•  Salaries, pensions and benefits
What do outside agencies get?
•  Defic...
Budgets
“Wait. What’s that?”
Ask about everything.

Photo: Office of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick
Budgets
The Los Angeles Times and
the city budget of Bell, California:
a $1.5 million/year city manager.
Two years of repo...
Taxes
Who pays, who doesn’t, and how?

Photo by flickr user Victor1558
Taxes
What is taxed and at what rate?
What doesn’t get taxed? Why?
What revenue is growing? Shrinking?
Who is delinquent?
...
Taxes
Helpful hint: “The rule of PUNG”
Probably, usually, normally, generally
(Thanks to R. Thomas Herman,
former tax colu...
Contracts
Who are we paying to do what?

Photo by flickr user Erik ERXON
Contracts
Who approves contracts? How and when?
Where should you be checking?
Competitive bidding – really?
Cost overruns:...
Contracts
Who are these contractors?
(Family, friends, campaign
donors, past or present public
officials?)
Do we really ne...
Contracts

“How would this look
on the front page
of the newspaper?”
The Business of Government
The Open Records Act (or Public Records
Act, Sunshine Law, etc.) is your friend.
Submit request...
The Business of Government
Anyone can file an Open Records Act
request asking a public entity for existing
documents, incl...
The Business of Government by John Cheves
The Business of Government by John Cheves
The Business of Government by John Cheves
The Business of Government by John Cheves
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The Business of Government by John Cheves

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John Cheves, investigative reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader, presents during the Reynolds Center's free workshop, "Investigating the Business of Government," in Lexington, Ky.

For more information on business coverage training for journalists, please visit http://businessjournalism.org.

Published in: Career, Business
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The Business of Government by John Cheves

  1. 1. The Business of Government: Uncovering Good Stories in Local Government Budgets, Taxes and Contracts John Cheves Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader jcheves@herald-leader.com
  2. 2. The Business of Government Follow the money What I learned in Liberty County: Get the records, data and numbers, and then ask your questions. Try to understand the budgets as well as your sources do. Poke, prod, ask. Don’t apologize: It’s our money.
  3. 3. The Business of Government Compared to what? The need for context
  4. 4. Budgets Up or down, winners and losers Photo by jjMustang_79
  5. 5. Budgets How do the biggest departments spend it? •  Salaries, pensions and benefits What do outside agencies get? •  Deficit spending, debt and debt service •  State and federal money •  Pools for discretionary spending •  One-time spending – land, projects (And read the footnotes!)
  6. 6. Budgets “Wait. What’s that?” Ask about everything. Photo: Office of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick
  7. 7. Budgets The Los Angeles Times and the city budget of Bell, California: a $1.5 million/year city manager. Two years of reporting, eight criminally charged public officials, millions of dollars in tax refunds and one Pulitzer Prize.
  8. 8. Taxes Who pays, who doesn’t, and how? Photo by flickr user Victor1558
  9. 9. Taxes What is taxed and at what rate? What doesn’t get taxed? Why? What revenue is growing? Shrinking? Who is delinquent? How’s the downturn treatin’ ya? Are tax breaks justifiable? Special taxing districts or entities
  10. 10. Taxes Helpful hint: “The rule of PUNG” Probably, usually, normally, generally (Thanks to R. Thomas Herman, former tax columnist, The Wall Street Journal)
  11. 11. Contracts Who are we paying to do what? Photo by flickr user Erik ERXON
  12. 12. Contracts Who approves contracts? How and when? Where should you be checking? Competitive bidding – really? Cost overruns: “Oh, one more thing …” Commonwealth Emergency operations Center in Frankfort, Ky. Photo: Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office
  13. 13. Contracts Who are these contractors? (Family, friends, campaign donors, past or present public officials?) Do we really need this? At that price? Spending more on contracts? Less? Wolf Creek Dam near Russell Springs, Ky. Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
  14. 14. Contracts “How would this look on the front page of the newspaper?”
  15. 15. The Business of Government The Open Records Act (or Public Records Act, Sunshine Law, etc.) is your friend. Submit requests regularly. Don’t settle for what public officials voluntarily give you. You don’t know what you didn’t know until you know it. In most states, the twin of ORA is the Open Meetings Act, which requires governments to conduct nearly all business in public.
  16. 16. The Business of Government Anyone can file an Open Records Act request asking a public entity for existing documents, including budgets, invoices, contracts, credit card statements, email, correspondence and payroll records. In Kentucky, you can appeal a denial of the Open Records Act to the Office of Attorney General in Frankfort – at no cost. Go to http://ag.ky.gov/civil/orom for more info.
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