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Government spending transparency is improving, but many states still lag far behind, according to 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, earning perfect scores in this year’s report, while others are still barely achieving the minimum standards.
“As tax day approaches, millions of Americans will write checks to their state governments. Citizens deserve to be able to follow their tax dollars, from the most minor state expenditures to the most major development subsidies,” said Michelle Surka, program associate with U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. “This year, it’s clear that several states made a commitment to meeting the high national standards for spending transparency. Other states continue to lag behind, unable to overcome some of the barriers that prevent comprehensive spending disclosures.”
Officials from 43 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, Michigan, Indiana, Oregon, and Connecticut.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2016” report assigns each state a grade of “A+” to “F.”
“States’ online spending transparency efforts are paying off in better informed citizens and a more efficient government,” said Elizabeth Ridlington, policy analyst with Frontier Group and co-author of the report. “Our research found that top-ranked states have been making steady improvements to their transparency websites over the years, giving citizens in most states unprecedented access to information on where their tax money goes.”
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.
Several states have made substantive upgrades to their transparency sites or added new features that give the public unprecedented ability to monitor how their government allocates resources. Of particular note:
· Michigan streamlined its transparency data and added functionality to its transparency website, including allowing bulk download of all its data.
· West Virginia launched a new site with data on projected and actual public benefits of the state’s major subsidy programs.
· Utah and Arizona have joined several other states in adding data from localities, municipalities and school districts to their state transparency portals. This provides an inexpensive way to improve the transparency of the spending that often affects ordinary citizens most directly.
· Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Washington now prominently feature data on quasi-public entities with web pages dedicated solely to these agencies, boards, authorities and commissions.
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. Only 11 states provide checkbook-level information that includes the recipients of each of the state’s most important subsidy programs.
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:
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