While some politicians try to cast state budget problems as all about public pensions and salaries, most government spending actually flows to other sorts of things. In many if not most public agencies the spending takes place largely through private contractors. Much other spending takes place through tax credits and quasi-public agencies that aren't even in the budget.
In the most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers at the United States Public Interest Research Group graded all 50 states on how well they provide online access to information about a broad swathe of government spending. States were given "A" to "F" grades based on the characteristics of the online transparency systems they have created to provide information on contracts, subsidies and spending at quasi-public agencies.
The good news is that state governments across the country are becoming far more transparent about where the money goes, but even the leading states still have a lot of room for improvement. Among the findings in the study:
Six states that had no central transparency website last year launched such sites by January 2011. These were Arizona, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.
Nine states garnered "A" or "B" grades. These leading states - Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon - provide information that is highly searchable, and include detailed data about government contracts, tax subsidies and grants to businesses.
Thirty-one "emerging" states received a "C" and "D" grade.
Ten "lagging" states received an "F" and don't provide checkbook-level information about government spending.