I know a shortcut to the truth.
I can sit at my computer, tap on a few keys and find a website that will tell me the salaries of every state employee in Missouri, where they spent the night during an out-of-state trip to New Orleans and how much an agency spent on beer and pizza.
That's just a small sample of what you can find on the Missouri Accountability Portal , a website created two years ago by Governor Matt Blunt.
Under the MAP banner you'll find the following categories: employees, expenses, stimulus, tax credits and "who is not paying." You can search by name, agency, the kind of expense (out-of-state lodging, training), by fiscal year and much more.
It's fun to look for fancy hotels and see who used them. If you search venders in 2009 for "Mandarin" you'll find that the state spent more than $800 for lodging at the swanky Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. If you want more information you'll have to dig deeper and probably request the records for that visit.
However, you need to be careful how you use this information. It's only a snapshot of what happened. It tells only a small part of the story.
Months ago, I investigated what appeared to be blatant abuse of state money by the Department for Social Services. In Fiscal 2009, DSS employees traveled to New Orleans and spent more than $40,000 on lodging at a casino hotel.
When I obtained the expense records it quickly became clear that the state employees were kept on a tight leash, spent very little on food and that the trip was paid for by the Louisiana Governor, who had requested their help with the hurricane recovery effort. It was a nice thing to do, but it wasn't a story for an investigative unit.
Here are a few tips that will turn up some interesting findings:
Look at the club dues and memberships for different agencies, especially the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education.
Search different years for the same expenses and spot trends in state spending.
You can also see which businesses are not paying their state sales taxes. You can search by county, city, the name of the business or the tax ID number.
Just remember, like any shortcut, the MAP will get you to your final destination. However, the risk of relying only on the website is that you'll miss important details that will put the figures on the website in the proper context.