Wisconsin State Expenditures Not Online, Not Transparent

Media Contacts

New Report Criticizes Online Transparency in State Spending

WISPIRG Foundation

Madison, WI – Wisconsin is falling behind other states in providing state taxpayers online information about the state budget and state spending, according to a new report released today by WISPIRG.  While Wisconsin has taken some initial steps to provide transparency, the state is far behind others, including Illinois and Minnesota, in giving taxpayers detailed information online

“What happened to Wisconsin’s long, proud tradition of open government?” stated Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director.  “Taxpayers deserve access to information about how their tax dollars are being spent.  And they deserve to know now what Wisconsin’s next governor will do to make state expenditures, more transparent.”

In 32 states, citizens have access to checkbook-level data on government spending, with most states providing residents access to a comprehensive, centralized, easily-searchable online database of state government expenditures.  In addition to building public confidence in government and advancing good government, budget transparency promotes fiscal responsibility, saving states money.  For example:
•    In the first two years of its transparency site, Texas saved $4.8 million from a variety of efficiencies and cost savings.  The Comptroller also identified an additional $3.8 million in expected savings.
•    In South Dakota, after the new transparency site was unveiled, questions from a reporter led legislators to save about $19 million per year by eliminating redundancies in their economic development programs. 
•    When combined with “clawback” legislation designed to recoup public subsidies from businesses that fail to deliver on promised results, the added transparency in contracting can produce even greater savings.  Using its clawback powers, Texas recovered $2.8 million from companies that didn’t deliver on job creation promises, and another $18.5 million in other repayments on subsidies from the Texas Enterprise Fund. 

“With Wisconsin in the midst of a budget crisis, it’s especially important for Wisconsinites to have easy access to information about the state’s expenditures,” continued Speight.  “Transparency is good for our government and good for our pocketbooks, rooting out fraud and waste and ensuring that state expenditures get us the best bang for the buck.  Transparency best practices from states across the country can show us the way!”

The report finds that Wisconsin’s online government spending websites – Contract Sunshine and a separate online portal to the annual economic development programs report – are disappointingly incomplete.  Many state contracts are missing from the site, comprehensive information on contracts and subsidies is lacking, and transparency information is not centrally located. 

Wisconsin should make its online transparency information comprehensive, bringing it up to the best practices established by other states, including:
•    Include spending from all agencies – The state should require all agencies to report expenditures on the transparency Web site. There should be no minimum dollar amount for required reporting.
•    Include comprehensive information on government contracts – A comprehensive transparency Web site should not only provide copies of government contracts, but it should also offer more detailed information that would allow citizens to fully monitor the contracting process, such as providing information on other bids received, and noting whether subcontractors were employed. 
•    Provide details about the promised and received benefits of economic development assistance – Wisconsin should post full details about how many jobs companies promise to create with economic development monies or tax credits. The pay and benefits of those promised jobs should be posted, along with information on what jobs actually were created.
•    Provide accountability information on one Web site – Wisconsin should ensure that all government spending information is provided on a central Web site.

“In an era when consumers can readily view real-time checking account balances or the number of minutes remaining for the month on a cell phone plan, taxpayers should have easy access to state spending as well,” concluded Speight.  “Will Tom Barrett and Scott Walker give Wisconsin taxpayers the state spending information they deserve? We’d like to know.”