Grade Drops Slightly While Other States Improve
NJPIRG Law & Policy Center
TRENTON– New Jersey received a “C” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the NJPIRG Law & Policy Center.
“State governments across the country have become more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Jen Kim, NJPIRG State Director. “But New Jersey still has a long way to go.”
Officials from New Jersey and 47 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” New Jersey’s “Your Money” spending transparency website, which garnered a “C” grade, provides checkbook-level spending information on contracts, economic development tax credits, and other expenditures. However, other kinds of information are not provided, such as detailed information on grants. Also, information on economic development tax credits is not provided in a searchable or downloadable format, and the website does not provide adequate information to hold companies accountable for economic development subsidies.
As a result of rising grading standards, New Jersey’s “C+” grade from last year dropped to a “C” this year. In order for states to keep up with rising standards and maintain high scores, they must continually improve transparency.
“New Jersey’s falling score does not mean spending has become less transparent,” said Kim. “It means other states are improving faster.”
“The Christie administration continues to take transparency very seriously,” said the Treasurer’s Office. “In addition to YourMoney.NJ.Gov, the Governor signed EO 125 on February 8, 2012 which makes all recovery related procurements and funding streams available on the State Comptroller’s website. Contracts are still available on YourMoney.NJ.Gov and the Division of Purchase and Property’s websites, but this single source highlights all of the pertinent information.”
Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data.
“This report shows that many states are getting impressive results from making contracts and subsidies more transparent. New Jersey should get in the lead,” said Kim.
One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states—all except California and Vermont—this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information on state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits—up from just eight states three years ago.
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Kim. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens, and include detailed information—allowing all the information to be put to good use.
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.
“The state of New Jersey should improve the breadth and ease-of-access of online government spending information,” said Kim. “Given our state budget problems, New Jerseyans need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, click here: yourmoney.nj.gov
To read the report, click here: njpirgcenter.org/reports/njp/following-money-2013
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NJPIRG Law and Policy Center conducts research and public education on behalf of New Jersey’s consumers and the public interest.