States Let the Public Follow the Money

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Transparency of state government spending, once a matter of interest mainly to specialists, has become a hot issue in recent years. Under the banner of “Google government,” activists on the Right and Left have been pressing states to make it easier for the public to see how tax revenues are being used.

Conservatives tend to push the issue as an indirect way of reducing public spending, while progressives are more likely to be concerned about contractor abuses and tax-break giveaways, yet both can frame the demand for better disclosure as a matter of enhancing democracy.

U.S. PIRG, which has been active in this effort in various states, today published Following the Money, a 50-state assessment of the progress toward what it calls Transparency 2.0 – “a new standard of comprehensive, one-stop, one-click budget accountability and accessibility.”

The report divides the states into three groups. Seven states (Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas) receive the highest scores (81-97 out of 100) and are described as leading the way; 25 states get lower scores (50-79) and are described as “emerging”; the remainder either have very low scores or do not yet have any online spending disclosure.

U.S. PIRG’s scoring system puts a great deal of emphasis on “checkbook level” spending data. While that information is helpful, it may be difficult to go from ledger entries to an adequate understanding of broader spending and revenue policies. The report, however, has a good overview of state best practices on fiscal disclosure overall.

In addition to contracting and grants, Following the Money looks at the extent to which the state Google government websites are tracking economic development subsidies. This is helpful – given the important steps that states such as Illinois and Kentucky have taken – but it should not be forgotten that in numerous states online subsidy disclosure occurs via specific agency websites rather than broad spending portals.

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