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Appendix D Summary of Presentations of Public Interest and Other User Groups P ublic interest groups use the Governments Division data on state and local government organization, finances, and employment as the basis for tracing changes in the well-being of their constituents, for analyzing general government trends, and for research, advocacy, and lobbying purposes. The panel benefited from the participation of several organizations which shared their concerns and suggestions in a meeting of a subgroup of the panel and in the workshop. Though each organization differs in its needs and uses of the Governments Division data, some com- mon themes were developed. This appendix summarizes their presentations on data needs and uses. FEDERATION OF TAX ADMINISTRATORS The Federation of Tax Administrators (FTA) finds the government finance series to be the best, most consistent data across states, and the federation uses this series widely. The main drawback is the slow release of the state and local data. FTA also cited the gaps in the 2001 and 2003 state and local data as a key concern (see Chapter 2) and stressed the im- portance of having consistent data across states and over time from the Governments Division.   Based on a presentation by Ron Alt, Federation of Tax Administrators, at the panel’s meet- ing with data users, May 9, 2006. 151

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152 STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT STATISTICS AT A CROSSROADS GOVERNMENTAL RESEARCH ASSOCIATION The Governmental Research Association (GRA), an association of 40–45 individual, primarily nonpartisan research organizations represent- ing a majority of the states, is interested in finding information that will help policy makers at the state and local government levels. Member or- ganizations represent all levels of government, including municipal, state, and regional groups. It is the association’s understanding that all of its member organizations use the Governments Division data in their research. Due to small staff size (sometimes only one or two staff people) and the heavy workload of many of GRA members, however, only a few individual organizations responded to GRA’s solicitation for feedback. The products the members use and the frequency with which they ac- cess the data suggest that they conduct many ranking studies to determine how their governments compare with similar governments. The responding organizations noted the importance of the consistency and standardization of the data from the Governments Division and particularly the useful- ness of the data from the Census of Governments and the annual financial reports. The data bring all the information into one source, include de- tailed footnotes, and provide a standard for interstate finance comparisons, which, for such small organizations, is vital for independent researchers in conducting research with minimal consultation with the Governments Division staff. Members expressed concerns related to the timeliness and quality of the data. In terms of timeliness, a 2-year lag for annual surveys would seem rea- sonable for the type of work many members conduct. However, data with a 4-year lag were described as “ancient history.” In addition to timeliness, the groups noted five other areas needing improvement—comparability, ac- curacy, disaggregation, nonreporting, and financial reporting standards. The represented GRA organizations are very interested in comparisons across governments. In particular, municipal spending line items vary widely across municipalities, and direct comparisons may be inaccurate if what underlies the numbers is not known. In some instances, the Governments Division provides tables of aggregate numbers for counties and municipali- ties that leave the researchers with more questions than answers. The Utah Foundation noted a case of the division’s data on education spending not matching the actual state spending on record. The foundation suggested that this discrepancy had to do with what is or is not included in each mea-   Based on presentations by Eric Lupher, Citizens Research Council of Michigan and a mem- ber of the Governmental Research Association, during the panel’s meeting with data users, May 9, 2006, and by Phyllis Resnick, director, New West Economics, and director, Govern- mental Research Association, during the panel’s workshop, June 22, 2006.

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APPENDIX D 153 sure. The case in Utah and the difficulty in using the aggregate tables are examples for which disaggregated data would help to solve some discrepan- cies and enable more meaningful comparisons across governments. The GRA offered suggestions related to time lags in the receipt of data and financial reporting standards. It noted that about half of the states have centralized reporting systems, which allow them to report informa- tion to the Governments Division and other data users in a timely manner. It suggested that the Governments Division provide incentives to promote central reporting. The GRA also suggested that the division should work with vendors of financial reporting software to standardize definitions and prepackaged reports. Finally, in terms of timeliness, the GRA users would be happy to have preliminary reports available. To them, there is a value to having the numbers earlier, even if they are not complete at the time of first delivery. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF COUNTIES The National Association of Counties (NACO) uses the Governments Division data in responding to information requests from policy makers and reporters; it also directs inquiries about county information to the division’s website. In its lobbying work and research, NACO uses virtu- ally all of the data products from the division; aggregate data are particu- larly helpful. It uses the data in electronic form but occasionally asks for special reports and information that cannot be accessed online. The most valuable product from the Governments Division for this group is the gov- ernment organization publication, which describes the scheme of govern- ments across the country. Accounting requirements, in addition to general governmental organization, vary among states. The aggregate charts and percentages, especially for employment data, are very helpful for NACO’s work. The value of the financial data from the Governments Division is their uniformity; the main problem is that the data are not specific enough, particularly the expenditure data. NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF STATE RETIREMENT ADMINISTRATORS The National Association of State Retirement Administrators (NASRA) uses data from the Governments Division chiefly to get a global sense of   Based on a presentation of Jackie Byers, National Association of Counties, during the panel’s meeting with data users, May 9, 2006. The National Association of State Budget Of- ficers has similar uses of the data, based on a presentation of Stacy Mazer during the same meeting.

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154 STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT STATISTICS AT A CROSSROADS retirement plans. Total expenditures and revenue are helpful, but it would benefit from having these items disaggregated by function and source. In terms of drawbacks in the Governments Division products, the as- sociation noted that timeliness is an issue, although the data have been even less timely in the past than now. Quarterly or semiannual data would be helpful in NASRA’s work, but given that it takes about six months to com- plete a comprehensive annual financial report (CAFR), NASRA recognizes the difficulty of generating such data and noted that having them is not as vital as having annual data that are more timely. NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF STATE LEGISLATURES The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) makes most use of the quarterly and annual financial surveys for trend analysis and inter- state comparisons.  Many of its publications on fiscal policies, such as its 1999 study of user charges and its series of reports on local property taxes from 2002–2004, rely on the Governments Division tax surveys.  The kind of analysis and reporting done in those publications would be impossible in the absence of the division’s data compilations.  NCSL also uses the division’s data for less formal responses to questions from state legislators, legislative staff, and other NCSL staff on state and local revenues and ex- penditures.  The long-standing presentation of tax and expenditure data has served the conference’s needs well.  NCSL would like to have more timely data but understands the difficulty of collecting and presenting data, since the conference itself has been unable to present state tax legislation in less than eight months after state legislative sessions end. State government expenditure data are essential. The NCSL is not confident that its own annual state expenditure surveys capture the data as accurately as the Governments Division surveys, partly because the divi- sion’s surveys are done after states have completed their reports and partly because the division’s surveys are much more structured and detailed than the NCSL surveys.  For time series and trend analyses, the Governments Division data are irreplaceable.  NCSL makes less use of local government expenditure data than of revenue data because its concern is state policy, which tends to affect local government revenues more directly than local government expenditures, but the division is the only comprehensive source of local government expenditure data. The NCSL staff makes less use of the Census of Governments, the quar-   Based on a presentation by Keith Brainerd, National Association of State Retirement Ad- ministrators, at the panel’s meeting with data users, May 9, 2006.   Based on a submission from Ron Snell, director of services for the National Conference of State Legislatures, in response to panel questions.

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APPENDIX D 155 terly financial surveys, and the retirement system surveys.  In their view, it would be useful for the Governments Division to compare the current funding status of state retirement systems with their actuarial accrued li- abilities. NCSL noted that estimates of accrued liabilities would be a useful but difficult addition to the Governments Division data collection. NATIONAL LEAGUE OF CITIES The National League of Cities (NLC) uses the Census of Governments primarily for its financial analyses, mainly the data on revenues and expen- ditures of cities by state because the league finds the census to be the best data source. NLC offered four suggestions for improving how and what the Governments Division collects: 1. Show information for smaller cities, since the cutoffs for the pub- lished Census of Governments data (usually 25,000 population and sometimes 10,000) do not permit full coverage of NLC’s members. 2. Pick up the “general funds” of the cities in question. The reporting of city financial data is usually across a set of funds. All cities use what is called a general fund together with a series of other types of funds—enterprise funds, utility funds, internal service funds, etc. The Census of Governments uses a different definition under the title of “general revenues” or “general expenditures,” but the fund types get mingled across the Census of Governments defini- tions.  According to NLC, the data would be more relevant if they included the general funds of the cities in question. 3. Put the state-by-state data online, at a greater level of detail. 4. Finally, identify whether gaps in the data for a city were attribut- able to nonresponse and indicate when the city last responded, so that the researchers can directly link back to the most recent reported data. NLC would like to see information on public officials—the number, their demographics and salaries, and so on—formerly published from the Census of Governments survey every five years become available once again. These data have not been published since 1992, and the information is no longer collected. Researchers of local governments are challenged in making across-gov-   Based on presentations by Christiana Brennan, the National League of Cities, during the panel’s meeting with data users, May 9, 2006, and by Michael Pagano, National League of Cities and the University of Illinois at Chicago, at the panel’s workshop, June 22, 2006.

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156 STATE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT STATISTICS AT A CROSSROADS ernment comparisons. They must understand the constraints under which government officials operate, specifically in the area of taxes and expendi- tures. NLC staff offered two examples of per capita tax measures as inac- curate indicators of tax burden on a population: Ohio, where commuter taxes are collected from people living outside the city in which they work, and Alaska, where taxes are paid by non-Alaskan citizens. Incorporating the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) Statement 34 guide- lines into the Governments Division reports might be helpful, as it would force researchers to think about the implications of problems in current budgets. The timeliness of the Governments Division data is an issue. The annual city fiscal conditions report is the closest the NLC is able to come to providing information on what is happening in the current budget year.