by Ben Davis
Last week, with U.S. PIRG Education Fund, we released Following the Money 2014, the fifth iteration of our transparency scorecard rating the 50 state governments on their disclosure of government spending data online. Our reports have encouraged state governments to steadily improve the quality and comprehensiveness of the spending and subsidy data they disclose. Last year, for the first time ever, all 50 states had operational websites making information on state spending available to the public.
This year’s scorecard highlights additional improvements. Today, at least 38 states provide checkbook-level data on economic development subsidies, enabling the public to know which businesses have been receiving special tax breaks or monetary incentives in exchange for promises to hire workers or grow the economy. Eight states – Indiana, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin – earned grades in the “A” range for providing data that are particularly accessible and easy to understand. These leading states allow their taxpayers to quickly and easily search for individual vendor payments, as well as to download and work with spending datasets and evaluate economic development subsidies.
Our report finds, however, that some states have much further to go to meet transparency standards, with three “Failing States” – California, Idaho, and Alaska – doing a particularly poor job of revealing spending data to their taxpayers. These states, which received an “F” grade, do not put spending data in a searchable, easy-to-view format at all, nor do they list any information about the cost, effectiveness, or status of the economic development subsidies they have granted to private corporations.
Government transparency, as our report discusses, is a broadly supported and non-partisan issue. Democratic and Republican-leaning states scored nearly identically on average on our 100-point scale. Wherever we look – from Austin to Springfield – states are taking steps toward transparent, open, and clear government. And as the Washington Post noted, states have made dramatic improvements in transparency overall since 2010, adding features to enhance and improve their online data.
By expanding online access to government spending information online, states are enabling citizens and watchdogs to “follow the money” – providing an important tool to encourage more efficient and accountable government.