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Washington received a “B-” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the WashPIRG 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 businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Micaela Preskill, Advocate with the WashPIRG Education Fund. “But Washington still has plenty of room for improvement.”
Officials from Washington and 47 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
“WashPIRG should be congratulated for putting out this national benchmark that states can use to compete to become the most transparent,” said Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center. “As one of the proponents of the law that created Washington’s state transparency website, we’re very pleased with Washington’s progress and look forward to working with the state to improve our rating.”
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Washington’s “Fiscal Information” transparency website, which garnered a “B-” grade, provides checkbook-level information on contracts, economic development tax credits, grants, and other expenditures. However, it lacks other kinds of information, such as information on off-budget agencies’ spending. It also lacks adequate information to hold companies accountable for economic development subsidies.
As a result of rising grading standards, Washington’s “B” grade from last year dropped to a “B-” this year. In order for states to keep up with rising standards and maintain high scores, they must continually improve transparency.
Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data.
One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states—all except California and Vermont—this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information on state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits—up from just eight states three years ago.
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Preskill. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens, and include detailed information—allowing all the information to be put to good use.
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.
“The state of Washington should improve the breadth and ease-of-access of online government spending information,” said Preskill, “Given our state budget problems, Washingtonians need to be able to follow the money.”
As Washington state budgets are released in the coming days, up-to-date information will be made available online. “The website makes the budget development process accessible in real-time as the budgets are released,” said Tom Jensen, Administrator for the Legislative Evaluation & Accountability Program Committee (LEAP) Washington State.
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