Report: Taxpayer Safeguards

Following the Money 2014

How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data
Released by: Arizona PIRG Education Fund

Every year, state governments spend tens of billions of dollars through contracts for goods and services, subsidies to encourage economic development, and other expenditures. Accountability and public scrutiny are necessary to ensure that the public can trust that state funds are well spent.

In recent years, state governments across the country have created transparency websites that provide checkbook-level information on government spending – meaning that users can view the payments made to individual companies as well as details about the purchased goods, services or other public benefits. These websites allow residents and watchdog groups to ensure that taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Last year was the first time that all 50 states operated websites to make information on state spending accessible to the public. These web portals continue to improve. For instance, in 2014, 38 states’ transparency websites also provide checkbook-level detail on subsidies for economic development. Many states are also disclosing information that was previously “off budget” and are making it easy for outside researchers to download and analyze large data sets about government spending.

This report, Arizona PIRG Education Fund’s fifth annual evaluation of state transparency websites, finds that states are making progress toward comprehensive, one-stop, one-click transparency and accountability for state government spending. Over the past year, new states have opened the books on public spending and several states have adopted new practices to further expand citizens’ access to critical spending information. But many states, including Arizona, have a long way to go to provide taxpayers with the information they need to ensure that government is spending their money effectively.

States have made varying levels of progress toward improved online spending transparency.

  • Leading States (“A” range): The eight states leading in online spending transparency have created user-friendly websites that provide visitors with accessible information on an array of expenditures. Not only can ordinary citizens find information on specific vendor payments through easy-to-use search features, but experts and watchdog groups can also download and analyze the entire checkbook dataset.
  • Advancing States (“B” range): Twenty states, including Arizona, are advancing in online spending transparency, with spending information that is easy to access but more limited than Leading States. Most Advancing States have checkbooks that are searchable by recipient, keyword and agency.
  • Middling States (“C” range): Ten states are middling in online spending transparency, with comprehensive and easy-to-access checkbook-level spending information but limited information on subsidies or other “off-budget” expenditures.
  • Lagging States (“D” range): Checkbook-level spending in the nine Lagging States is less accessible to users than checkbook-level spending in other states. For example, while these states provide the public with the ability to search for specific payments, residents cannot download and analyze the entire dataset.
  • Failing States (“F” range): Three states are failing to meet several of the standards of online spending transparency. For instance, while these states provide checkbook-level information, the spending data are not available in searchable online tools.

All states, including Leading States, have many opportunities to improve their transparency.

  • Not a single state provides checkbook-level spending information on all of its quasi-public agencies – which demand particular openness because they typically remain outside the normal checks and balances of the budget process.
  • Fifteen states do not provide any recipient-specific details on the benefits – either projected or actual – of economic development subsidies. Only six states provide checkbook-level information on the subsidy recipients for each of the state’s most important economic development programs.
  • The checkbooks in three states – Alaska, California and Ohio – cannot effectively be searched at all.
  • Seventeen states do not allow users to download the entire checkbook dataset for offline analysis.
  • Six states do not provide tax expenditure reports that detail the impact on the state budget of specific targeted tax credits, exemptions or deductions.

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