Florida PIRG Education Fund
Florida received an “A” 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 Florida Public Interest Research Group 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.
“This year, most states have made 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 Florida Public Interest Research Group. “Florida continues to be one of the leaders of the pack.”
Officials from Florida 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.
Florida is a leading state again this year, though a few changes to the transparency website prove that even a state already at the top can continue to improve. For instance, Florida now informs visitors of the value of payments excluded from the checkbook for confidentiality reasons, enabling users to better grasp the missing state payments that policies prohibit from being listed in the checkbook database. The website has also begun to bring quasi-public agencies out of the shadows, by including an entire page dedicated to providing more information about many such agencies. Next year, the state should aim to improve even further by adding more information about some of its largest economic development programs.
“It’s good that Florida provides easier access to data about contracting than most states,” said Susan McGrath, Executive Director of Florida Consumer Action Network. “The ‘Sunshine State’ should commit to becoming equally transparent about business subsidies and other off-budget activities. Florida residents deserve nothing less.”
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. Florida officials reported that their transparency portal cost was launched using the existing budget of the Department of Financial Services and costs $489,563, including staff time and benefits, consulting and IT maintenance annually.
“I made a promise to Floridians that our office would operate with more accountability and more transparency than any other CFO ever had, and I’m proud that we’ve accomplished that goal,” said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. “In 2012, I advocated for changes in the law that allowed us to create the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System (FACTS) so everyone would have access to contracting information, have the ability to scrutinize purchases, and learn exactly how their tax dollars are being spent. Since then, our website has been recognized as one of the very best in the nation and we continue to look for additional opportunities to share even more information with the public.”
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.
“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.”
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. ”
Florida’s transparency website is operated by the Florida Department of Financial Services. To visit it, click here: www.myfloridacfo.com/transparency
To read the full report: http://www.floridapirg.org/reports/flp/following-money-2015