Madison, WI, March 26 – Wisconsin received an “F” for 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 WISPIRG Foundation.
Even after state leaders lost track of $50 million in taxpayer loans to private companies, the new report finds that Wisconsin taxpayers still have little to no information about how our tax dollars are being spent, especially on economic development subsidies and grants.
“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 Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Foundation Director. “But Wisconsin still has a long way to go.”
Officials from Wisconsin 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.” The report describes Wisconsin as a “failing state” in online spending transparency. The state’s “Contract Sunshine” transparency website provides checkbook-level information on contracts and other expenditures, but lacks information that the vast majority of states also provide. For instance, the transparency site fails to provide information on economic development tax credits, grants, or spending by off-budget agencies. It also lacks links to tax expenditure reports or any information on municipal expenditures.
As a result of rising grading standards that reflect heightened expectations for government transparency, Wisconsin’s “D-” grade from last year dropped to an “F” this year. Only three states received worse grades in the report.
“Wisconsin’s falling score does not mean spending here has become less transparent,” said Speight. “It means most states are improving faster, and Wisconsin is falling behind.”
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.
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 Speight. “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.
“With state leaders having lost track of $50 million in taxpayer-funded economic development loans to private companies, Wisconsin needs to do better than this. The improvement of the state’s transparency website should be a priority, because Wisconsinites deserve a full view of government spending,” said Speight. “Wisconsinites need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, click here: www.sunshine.wi.gov.
To read the report, click here: www.wispirg.org.
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The WISPIRG Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization, conducts research and public education on behalf of Wisconsin’s consumers and the public interest. Our research, analysis, reports and outreach serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or wellbeing. www.wispirgfoundation.org.