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Missouri received a “C+” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the Missouri Public Interest Research Group Education Fund.
This year’s report recognized more states as leaders than ever before, with all but two states allowing users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three. Likewise, 44 states now provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs.
“This year, most states have made their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with MOPIRG Education Fund. "Missouri, however, has improved only slightly, with a long way to go."
Officials from Missouri and 46 other states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
Missouri is still “middling” in state online budget transparency, improving its score only slightly since last year. The transparency portal fails to include quasi-public agencies in its checkbook, which can mean millions in state money left un-scrutinized by the public. Tax expenditure reports, which provide summaries of the tax revenue forgone from tax exemptions, credits and other breaks, are also not included on the Missouri transparency portal. Missouri already provides recipient-specific information on the projected and actual economic benefits created by some of the state’s largest economic development programs. In order to be a leader, the state will have to address some of the missing data as well as continue to expand in the areas it is already strong.
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. Missouri officials reported that their transparency portal cost $293,140 from the existing budget of the Office of Administration at launch and costs less than $5,000 annually to maintain. A recent update cost less than $25,000 in staff time.
"Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions," said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. "It's encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible."
State spending transparency appears to be a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of state legislative, gubernatorial or public opinion partisanship and found that neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.
The state of Ohio topped the rankings, climbing from a “D-” in 2014 to an “A+” this year for its improvements to the Online Checkbook transparency portal. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable. ”
Missouri’s transparency website is operated by the Missouri Office of Administration. To visit it, click here: mapyourtaxes.mo.gov/map
To read the full report: http://www.mopirgfoundation.org/reports/mop/following-money-2015
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