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State Spending Transparency Greatly Improved from 1 Year Ago, Survey Says

U.S. PIRG gives states higher marks on scorecard that measures how they’re making data available on transparency websites.

As many states are excelling as are failing in a state-by-state grading of spending transparency, according to an assessment announced Wednesday by U.S. PIRG — the nonprofit, nonpartisan federation of Public Interest Research Groups.

Nine states garnered “A” or “B” grades, while 10 received an “F” in the second-annual survey, called Following the Money 2011. The other 31 states received a “C,” based on a points-based scorecard that tallied each state’s ability to provide spending data on its main transparency website. Categories included whether the data could be downloaded, whether it was available at the checkbook level, and whether local spending and stimulus grants were integrated, among several other factors.

As a group, states are much further along than they were a year ago at making raw data that’s publicly available online, said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy at U.S PIRG and the report’s co-author. One year ago only Kentucky got an A, and 18 states took an F — 14 states hadn’t launched a transparency website at the time.
Baxandall said he’s really impressed by the progress.

“There is not any Red state versus Blue state pattern going on here. And there are exemplars from every region of the country, so it doesn’t appear to be about any one particular geography either,” he said. Furthermore, a state’s size or budget doesn’t seem to dictate whether transparency is embraced.
Kentucky and Texas led all states, scoring 96 out of a possible 100 total. Indiana, Arizona and Louisiana also received an A. (Arizona had the biggest year-over-year improvement, making an 80-point gain from 2010.) Arizona and Indiana were among the six states — joining Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire and Wisconsin — that created new transparency portals last year, according to the report.

Maine received the lowest score, a zero, because users of the state’s transparency website must be a vendor in order to access the data, according to U.S. PIRG. North Dakota, Idaho, New Hampshire and Montana are also at the bottom of the list.
In those smaller states, it’s often a question of funding and modernization, Baxandall said. For example, Montana officials told U.S. PIRG that transparency is a priority for them but that the state legacy systems can’t handle more transparent, granular reporting. Making the necessary technical improvements to existing systems would cost $2.7 million, Montana estimated. Other states, meanwhile, said they improved their transparency websites with existing dollars and that the investment quickly paid for itself, Baxandall added.

According to the report, the most-cited challenge for improving their transparency portals was getting funding. “Even among the states that had already developed transparency websites, many reported doing so with very limited funds, or in some cases, no budget at all.” States also mentioned interagency coordination and antiquated accounting systems as further obstacles.

As for transparency itself, U.S. PIRG identified areas where improvements in transparency could be made. Most state data websites still don’t have detailed information for contracts, only about half include spending data before fiscal year 2009, and only 14 states include data on local spending and tax expenditure reports. In the future, U.S. PIRG might also examine the completeness of each state’s data, Baxandall said.

The transparency movement gained traction two years ago with the start of the federal government’s economic stimulus, but Baxandall said it now appears entrenched in state government.

“I think the public has responded that they care about this,” Baxandall said about the transparency push. “The federal government has put this on the agenda in a big way through the [stimulus] transparency measures. And desperate budget situations have made everyone realize how every dollar counts.”

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.