Whether it’s economic development subsidies or copies of vendor contracts, more state government spending information is becoming available at taxpayers’ fingertips online.
A report published this morning by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) grades states’ online spending transparency efforts. While most state governments are expanding the scope of spending data posted online, progress has been uneven across the country.
All 50 states maintain some form of “checkbook-level” transparency -- what U.S. PIRG considers publishing of contracts, goods, services and other state expenditures. Some states have established their own robust transparency portals with searchable datasets; others integrate spending data into multiple agency websites.
This year, Indiana received 94 out of 100 possible points – the highest score of any state. The report lauded the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s new website for posting detailed information, including reclaimed subsidies when recipients fail to hold up their end of an agreement.
Seven other states also earned an “A-“ grade.
The report identified eight states that launched new or revamped transparency websites over the past year: Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont and Wisconsin. Last week, Connecticut also launched an open data portal covering a range of state government programs.
“This has been a trend that moves in one direction,” said Phineas Baxandall, a U.S. PIRG analyst who co-authored the report. “Once a state has established that this information is online, people come to expect it.”
In grading the states, U.S. PIRG reviewed the availability of a range of information on state contracts, economic development subsidies and other expenditures. States also received higher marks for user-friendly website features, such as searchable databases and downloadable reports.
Alaska, California and Idaho were slapped with “F” grades.
U.S. PIRG identified several areas where states could improve transparency. Data on economic development program remains limited, with only six states disclosing information for all major programs. About half of states fail to specify the types of payments they aren’t publishing online. For other states, spending data cannot be downloaded or found easily via search.
U.S. PIRG also noted a lack of transparency for independent agencies, such as transit authorities and pension boards. No single state, according to the report, published checkbook-level spending information for all of its quasi-public agencies earlier this year.
Such agencies typically employ separate budgeting and procurement systems, making information more difficult to obtain.
“The less scrutinized areas of state spending should get more, not less transparency,” Baxandall said.
Along with making governments more accountable, the report shows how transparency websites have helped states save money or achieve policy goals.
Transparency sites can be particularly useful in the area of contracting. Agencies might contact companies to bid on contracts if they see the companies are providing similar services to other agencies, or they may work to consolidate orders to get a better deal. States may also use other state transparency websites to compare how much they’re paying for contracts.
Texas, for example, renegotiated a copier machine lease to save $33 million over three years. Florida reported it saved $3.2 million between October 2012 and June 2013 by renegotiating contracts.
Posting spending data online also trims the amount resources states need to fulfill information requests.
Some of the more innovative practices highlighted in the report include:
- Massachusetts awarded grants to six of its cities to fund efforts aimed at posting spending information online.
- While most states issue disclaimers that published information is not verified to be correct, South Dakota audits its checkbook every year.
- Some states identify types of payments excluded from online checkbooks, but Tennessee’s website lists both the type and value of the excluded payments.
The following map shows U.S. PIRG's online transparency grades for states, current as of February. Please see the report for the grading methodology: