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Government spending transparency is improving, but at an uneven pace among the 50 states, according to “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fifth annual report of its kind by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
“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 recipients of public subsidies accountable,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
Officials from 45 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Grading standards rise each year, so states need to improve transparency each year to be a leader.
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, six states provide public access to checkbook-level data on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs, allowing citizens and public officials to hold subsidy recipients accountable by listing the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and showing the benefits they actually delivered. The most transparent states similarly provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies.
“Rising public expectations about government transparency are clearly making progress,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks state and local subsidies. “US PIRG’s findings about overall state spending transparency are consistent with our own specific findings about economic development subsidies: there is more data and its quality is improving. Now our collective challenge is to use the data to win more accountability and equity.”
“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.”
At least eight states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report.
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, top-flight transparency websites 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 with a variety of measures of which party rules the state legislative, or sits in the Governor’s office, or how public opinion tilts in the states. Neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
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