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Statement of U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Education Fund’s Senior Tax and Budget Analyst, Phineas Baxandall, on Governor Paul LePage’s Tuesday night announcement in his State of the State address about the launch of a new website providing public access to information about state spending. The website is viewable at opencheckbook.maine.gov/. U.S.PIRG Education Fund is a national leader in evaluating state transparency websites.
“We’re glad Maine is joining the ranks of states that disclose information about government spending. The new website is an impressive first step to open up the state’s checkbook. Mainers now have an important new tool to hold their government accountable.
“Maine Open Checkbook does a good job at being comprehensive and intuitive for users. For fiscal year 2012 alone it provides searchable data on over $7 billion in spending that is easily sortable by 103 state agencies and offices, 43 spending categories, 33 purchasing funds, and more than 58,000 vendors. This brings an unprecedented level of transparency to Maine residents.
“There is still substantial room for improvement. For instance, the site currently does not specify the recipients of state grants, listing only the values of those payments — a shortcoming that prevents the public from holding their leaders accountable for $660 million in spending during fiscal year 2012. Spending through the tax code on credits awarded through economic development programs – such as the $1.4 million Seed Capital Investment Tax Credit program –have not been made available on the checkbook yet. Additionally, payments made by quasi-public agencies, such as the Maine Turnpike Authority and the Maine Housing Authority, have not been made available on the checkbook.
Oddly, it was during the section of the Governor’s speech that he singled out these last two government bodies for wasteful use of tax dollars that he announced the new transparency website. Unfortunately the site does not list any information about the Maine Turnpike Authority. For the Maine Housing Authority, it does not list payments made to specific vendors and cites an amount that is only a tiny fraction of the operating listed in the Authority’s financial statements. When a visitor to the new website tries to view the recipients of the $8,744,265 dollars associated with the Maine State Housing Authority for fiscal year 2012, the names are listed as “NOT PROVIDED.”
“Over the past year we worked with the Controller’s office while preparing our last national report on state transparency websites. We also had the opportunity to review the new state website with the State Controller on the phone earlier this week. We applaud their efforts to open the books on state spending and look forward to future improvements.
The U.S. PIRG Education Fund has released an annual report each year since 2010 evaluating how the 50 states rate in providing online access to government spending data. Last year, Maine received a “D minus” for its lack of transparency and was designated as a “lagging state.”
Last year’s report ranking state transparency websites can be downloaded at http://www.uspirgedfund.org/reports/usp/following-money-2012
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