Vermont gets D- for online financial transparency

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Vermont gets D- for online financial transparency

Thu, 03/15/2012 - 7:13am -- tim

Online access to the state of Vermont finances got a near failing grade from the US Public Interest Research Group, in a report made public Wednesday. The D- indicates that there is some availability of the state's finances on line, but it is hard to find for the average user. Vermont was joined in the next-to-worst category by states ranging from Maine to New Hampshire to California.
In Following the Money 2012: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data, researchers at the US PIRG graded all 50 states on how well they provide online access to information about government spending. States were given ‘A’ to ‘F’ grades based on the characteristics of the online transparency systems they have created to provide information on contracts, subsidies and spending at quasi-public agencies.
‘State governments across the country continue to be more transparent about where the money goes, extending checkbook-level disclosure of data on spending to contracting, tax subsidies, development incentives and other expenditures,’ explained Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst for Tax and Budget Policy at US PIRG and co-author of the report. ‘But most states still have a lot of room for improvement.’
Among the findings in the report:

In 2011, eight states created new transparency websites: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, and West Virginia.

Seven states garnered ‘A’ grades. These ‘leading’ states ‘ Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Arizona ‘ provide information that is highly searchable, and include detailed data about government contracts, tax subsidies and grants to businesses.
Five ‘failing’ states received an ‘F’ grade, because they lack important information that allows residents to monitor state spending. Four of these states don’t provide checkbook-level information about government spending.
Democratic and Republican-leaning states perform equally well when it comes to transparency this year. The average score for a Democratic-leaning state (determined by political party of the current governor) was 70.2, while that of a Republican-leaning state was 68.9, a difference of less than two points.
Leading states (’A’ range): Seven states have established user-friendly transparency portals that contain comprehensive information on government expenditures. Citizens and watchdog groups can use the sites to monitor government spending quickly and easily. Among the most distinctive features of Leading states’ transparency websites is the ability to compare state expenditures over time.

Advancing states (’B’ range): Fourteen states have established websites that are user-friendly and searchable, but lack the breadth of information characteristic of the Leading states. Eleven Advancing states provide only limited information on the goods or services purchased because they do not provide copies of all contracts, while eight do not provide descriptions on grants and economic development incentives administered by the state.
Emerging states (’C’ range): Fourteen states’ websites have checkbook-level detail and are easily searchable, but are far less comprehensive ‘ in terms of checkbook detail, information on city and county spending, and tax expenditure data ‘ than Leading or Advancing states.
Lagging states (’D’ range): Ten states’ online checkbooks are difficult to use. Their sites rarely provide spending details for off-budget agencies, post information on state revenue forgone through tax expenditures, or link to city and county expenditure sites.
Failing states (’F’): Five states are failing in online transparency. Most Failing states have not posted their checkbooks online or provided other important information that allows residents to monitor state spending.

The report, Following The Money 2012: How The 50 States Rate In Providing Online Access To Government Spending Data, is the second annual study from U.S. Public Interest Research Groupon state spending transparency. The group reached out to public officials responsible for providing transparency information and received substantive feedback from officials in 47 states.
This year’s report found that 46 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with ‘checkbook-level’ detail, a major increase from 32 states two years ago. Twenty nine state transparency websites now provide information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits ‘ up from eight states two years ago.
Said Baxandall, ‘Citizens expect information to be at their fingertips the way they can view their cell phone minutes or the location of a package. Putting spending information online helps hold government accountable and allows taxpayers to see where the money goes.’
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, states with top-flight transparency websites actually save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government, and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
‘It is important to continually strive to improve the state's transparency website because it shines a light on government spending,’ said Baxandall. ‘Given our budget problems, American taxpayers need to be able to follow the money.’  
To read the report, click here. 
Source: US PIRG 3.14.2012