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Boston, March 16 – Massachusetts gets a “B+” when it comes to openness about government spending, according to Following the Money 2011: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data, the second annual report of its kind by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG). Included with the report is an interactive online tool that allows users to view how Massachusetts is doing compared to other states’ transparency practices.
“The good news is that since last year’s Following the Money report, state governments across the country, including here in Massachusetts, have become far more transparent about where our money goes,” said Deirdre Cummings, MASSPIRG Legislative Director. “But Massachusetts is still not head of the class.”
Massachusetts is ranked 6th among the leading states with the most open spending; joining Kentucky, Texas, Indiana, Arizona, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oregon. This year the Executive Office of Administration and Finance has launched a new transparency website, Massachusetts Transparency, bringing the state’s spending information under one roof, though behind a number of separate doors. The best transparency states seamlessly integrate data about spending, and provide easy accessibility to the information.
Since last year’s Following the Money report, in which Massachusetts received a failing grade, the legislature passed and the governor signed into law new transparency and accountability reforms as part of the state’s FY 2011 Budget. The new law required the development of a comprehensive state budget and spending website coupled with improved transparency of transferable and refundable business tax credits and quasi-public agencies.
“While Massachusetts has made progress, we have yet to see most of the language of the new law fully implemented. There is a lot of room for improvement,” said Cummings. “Full access to all of the state’s spending information is like building a house. Right now the frame is built with a front door and an address, but the boxes still need to be unpacked and the appliances hooked up,” referring to information which is not available or difficult or impossible to access. “If a vendor or a determined researcher knows what they are looking for, they can probably find much of it buried in the boxes. But an ordinary visitor would be lost sifting through all the boxes and disappointed waiting for all the boxes to arrive.”
“The Patrick-Murray Administration set its sights on becoming a national leader in government accountability and transparency and I am proud to say our improved grade of a B+ shows we are making significant progress on that front,” said Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez. “In January we launched the first phase of the Commonwealth's new transparency website and over the next year, we will work collaboratively with Treasurer Grossman and the Comptroller’s Office to fulfill our collective goal of an “open checkbook” for Massachusetts taxpayers.”
What Massachusetts does well in making spending more transparent:
- Has a new comprehensive law to create transparency web site
- New law calls for first-in-the-nation budget transparency of quasi-public agencies
- Web site establishes one portal, Massachusetts Transparency, where all the spending information can be found
- Web site includes a tax expenditure report which includes the cost and description of each tax spending program, including historical data
- Web site provides a link to the easy-to-use American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) website, which includes all federal stimulus spending and complete contracts for that spending
- Web site solicits feedback from citizens
Where Massachusetts must improve to make spending more transparent:
- Checkbook level detail: The current site only provides a fraction of the state’s actual transactions with links through its procurement site. All spending, with checkbook-level detail, must be made available, searchable and easy to use.
- Greater detail on economic development subsidies and tax expenditures: The new law requires the reporting of which companies receive tax subsidies from a set of programs that give refundable credits and the amounts they receive. Full transparency would disclose this information for a wider range of subsidies and show whether or not companies fulfilled the commitments they promised in return for those subsidies.
- User-friendly: The current site remains difficult to navigate. Unless spending information is accessible, it is not truly transparent.
“We made some progress last session, but we still have a ways to go to ensure our government is as open to citizens as possible,” said State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton), the lead Senate sponsor, along with Representative Carl Sciortino (D-Somerville) in the House, of An Act to Promote Efficiency and Transparency in Economic Development. “One glaring problem is the lack of transparency in our economic development spending. We give corporations millions of dollars in subsidies each year to create jobs -- and yet all too often, we don’t follow up to make sure those jobs are actually created or make that information public. Without this level of transparency and accountability neither the public nor the legislature can have confidence that we are spending our economic development dollars wisely.”
There has been remarkable progress across the country with more states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to government spending information. This year’s report found that 40 states now provide an online database of government expenditures with “checkbook-level” detail. The states with the most transparent spending also include data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. The best state transparency tools were highly searchable, engaged citizens, and included detailed information about government contracts, tax expenditures, tax subsidies and economic development incentives.
States that have created or improved their online transparency have typically done so with little upfront cost. In fact, states with top-flight transparency websites save money for taxpayers, while also restoring public confidence in government, and preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
“Having one of the best transparency websites in the nation is important because it helps to shine a light on government spending,” concluded Cummings. “In good economic times or bad, Bay Staters need to be able to follow the money.”
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MASSPIRG is a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens-based advocacy group with members across the state.
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