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Pennsylvania received a “B” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the PennPIRG Education Fund.
This year’s report recognized more states as leaders than ever before, with all but two states allowing users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three. Likewise, 44 states now provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs. Some states have even innovated entirely new features.
“This year, most states have continued to make their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with the PennPIRG Education Fund. "Pennsylvania, however, has improved only slightly."
Officials from Pennsylvania and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
Pennsylvania is an “advancing” state in this report. Of all “advancing” states, Pennsylvania is the only one that fails to allow users to download all of its checkbook-level spending data in bulk, and so is at risk of falling behind next year. The state’s site, which cost $900,000 to launch, does provide detailed checkbook-level data about four of its five largest economic development programs.
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 preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts. Pennsylvania's transparency site maintained annually from the existing budget of the Office of Administration.
"Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions, said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. "It's encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible."
State spending transparency appears to be a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of state legislative, gubernatorial or public opinion partisanship and found that neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
The state of Ohio topped the rankings, climbing from a “D-” in 2014 to an “A+” this year for its improvements to the Online Checkbook transparency portal. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable.”
Pennsylvania’s transparency website is operated by the Pennsylvania Office of Administration. To visit it, click here: www.pennwatch.pa.gov
To read the full report: http://www.pennpirg.org/reports/pap/following-money-2015
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