(April 9, 2014) — Kentucky received a B when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2014: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fifth annual report of its kind by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund works to protect consumers and promote good government.
“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 recipients of public subsidies accountable,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. “We’re hoping that Kentucky will be a leader next year.”
Officials from Kentucky and 44 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 Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont and Wisconsin.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states’ transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2014” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” Described in the report as an “Advancing state,” Kentucky’s checkbook is searchable by recipient, keyword and agency. However, few Advancing States provide information on the funds recouped from subsidy recipients who fail to deliver on the agreed-upon public benefits.
“Kentucky’s score of 83 was a fall from last year’s 92,. This does not mean that spending become less open. But the state’s transparency improvements didn’t keep pace with rising standards, improved technological capacity and growing public expectations around the country,” Baxandall said. “For example, Kentucky provides less capability than many states for those who seek to download data bulk from the website for detailed analysis.”
Overall, the ‘Following the Money’ report demonstrates that 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, he added.
While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny. For instance, six states provide public access to checkbook-level data on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs, allowing citizens and public officials to hold subsidy recipients accountable by listing the public benefits that specific companies were expected to provide and showing the benefits they actually delivered. The most transparent states also provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies.
“Rising public expectations about government transparency are clearly making progress,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks state and local subsidies. “US PIRG’s findings about overall state spending transparency are consistent with our own specific findings about economic development subsidies: there is more data and its quality is improving. Now our collective challenge is to use the data to win more accountability and equity.”
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Baxandall. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
At least eight states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report.
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. According to Kentucky officials, the transparency website eliminates an estimated 40 percent of the administrative costs of procurement assistance requests, and could reduce the costs associated with open records requests by as much as 10 percent.
State spending transparency is a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of which party rules the state legislative, or sits in the Governor’s office, or how public opinion tilts in the states. Neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
The state’s transparency website, is operated by Kentucky Governor’s Office: E-Transparency Task Force, a multi-agency effort led by officials of the Finance and Administration Cabinet. To visit the site, click here: opendoor.ky.gov.
To read the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report, click here: uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2014.