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Transparency Report Card Grades 50 States on Spending Openness

From USPIRG Tuesday, March 26, 2013

U.S. PIRG Education Fund released its fourth annual study today, titled “Following the Money 2013,” evaluating each of the 50 states on their spending transparency with an “A” to “F” grade.

“State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “But standards for transparency are continually rising, so there is always room for improvement.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • For the first time ever, all 50 states now provide some “checkbook-level” government expenditure information online, a major increase from three years ago when only 32 states detailed information on specific payments made to individual vendors.
  • Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include reports about government spending through tax-code deductions, exemptions and credits – up from just eight states that did so three years ago.
  • In the past year, a number of states created new transparency websites, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
  • Seven states earned “A” grades: Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma. These “leading” states provide detailed information on different types of payments, usually in searchable and easy-to-use databases.
  • Five states earned “F” grades: Wyoming, Wisconsin, Hawaii, California, and North Dakota. These “failing” states provide some checkbook-level information, but their websites are limited in scope, lack comprehensiveness, and are difficult to navigate.
  • Spending transparency follows no partisan pattern. On a 100-point scale, the average score of states with Democratic governors differed by less than half a point from states with Republican governors.

Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country, with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data. Officials from 48 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites.

“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Baxandall. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”

The states with the most transparent spending are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, disclosing data on economic development subsidies, grants, expenditures through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies—recognizing that these items affect budget trade-offs just as traditional spending does. But the best states have transparency tools that are highly searchable, include detailed usable information, and engage citizens—allowing all the information to be put to good use.

States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. Moreover, the report shows that top-flight transparency websites can save money for taxpayers, while restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.

“We’ve been encouraging states to advance spending transparency with our report cards since 2010. The progress that we’ve witnessed each year is very encouraging, and states should continue to prioritize transparency going forward,” said Baxandall. “As many states grapple with long-term budget shortfalls, it is more important than ever for citizens to be able to follow the money.”

To read the report, click here.

  *   *   *   *   *

from the report ….

Failing “F” States

State              Grade       Point Total

Wyoming        F                   48

Wisconsin       F                   47

Hawaii             F                   39

California        F                   37

N Dakota        F                   31

Five states are failing in online spending transparency. While these states maintain websites that are checkbook-level,  the sites are limited and hard to use. Not a single Failing State provides information on the public benefits of economic development subsidies broken  down by recipient or makes its tax expenditure report available. Only one state – Wyoming – provides spending information on off-budget agencies. In addition, while visitors can download California’s checkbook  information,  the  data are not available in a user interface – making it one of two states in the country without  searchable  vendor-specific spending information. (The other is Vermont.)

Outdated Information Systems

Numerous states reported antiquated technological systems as impediments to greater transparency.68 For example, Virginia’s outdated accounting and procurement systems prevent the state from posting electronic copies of contracts online.69 The accounting system still used in Idaho is more than 30 years old.70  Some states are currently working to overcome these problems by improving or replacing outdated information systems.  For example, according to Hawaii’s Department of Budget and Finance, the state has “initiated an ambitious technology transformation program, in order to upgrade and modernize the State’s information technology infrastructure.”71

To read the report, click here.

Audit: State Gave Away $1B Act 221 Tax Credits Without Verification of Eligibility

SA: Hawaii graded F for access to data on spending

HR: Following the money government spends isn't easy in Hawaii: Report gives state an 'F' grade for transparency

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