Government spending transparency is improving, but many states still lag far behind, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. Some states have improved their spending transparency web portals significantly, and even introduced entirely new state-of-the-art transparency sites with innovative features, while others are still barely achieving the minimum standards.
“Budget transparency is becoming a clear priority among the states, as shown by some of the dramatic improvements we’ve seen in this year’s study,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. “States like Ohio have skyrocketed to the top, while others, like Alaska and California remain far behind their peers.”
Officials from 47 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A+” to “F.”
This year, most states have met basic standards for providing online access to information about state contracting and an increasing number provide information about economic development subsidies and off-budget agencies. All but two states allow users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three, and 44 states’ transparency websites provide links to one or more tax expenditure reports.
Ohio has the most dramatically improved website, rising from a “D-“ in 2014’s report to the highest score in this year’s report, an “A+”. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable.”
According to Montana Governor Steve Bullock, “Montanans deserve and rightly expect transparency, which is why one of the first things I did was to put our state’s checkbook online. I welcome being held accountable to our citizens for how we spend tax dollars. It makes government more effective and more fiscally responsible.”
While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny. For instance, only eight states include the recipients of each of the state’s most important subsidy programs in their online databases.
“Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions,” said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. “It’s encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible.”
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. Top-flight transparency web portals can save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
State spending transparency is a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores against party control of Governors’ offices and the state legislatures. For neither measure did higher levels of spending transparency correspond to Republican or Democratic control.
To read the full report: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2015