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SEATTLE – Washington State 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 Washington State Public Interest Research Group Foundation and U.S.PIRG Education Fund.
“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 Chris Esh, Program Assistant with the WashPIRG Foundation.
Officials from the Washington State Legislative Evaluation & Accountability Program Committee (LEAP) and officials from 45 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. Alaska, California, and Idaho had the worst grades.
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.”
“Last year Washington earned a B-, so this year’s B grade is a small improvement.” Grading standards rise each year, so states need to improve transparency each year to be a leader. Washington has room for improvement when it comes to disclosing subsidies programs.
Washington’s Aerospace Manufacturer Preferential Tax Rate—one of the state’s most important subsidy programs—earns high marks for providing actual public benefits, like job creation figures by salary. However, the subsidy program lacks checkbook-level reporting and leaves out projected public benefits.
The state’s “Tax Incentive Public Disclosure Reports” have a column for the Aerospace Non-Manufacturing Tax Incentive that would have the value of the subsidy award, but the column is left blank. The Aerospace Non-Manufacturing Tax Incentive is one of the largest subsidy programs in the state.
Much of the latest subsidy data on the state’s largest subsidy programs falls short of meeting checkbook-level reporting. Fiscal.wa.gov discloses the actual public benefits for Washington’s top 5 subsidies, but some lack downloadable reports, and none report projected public benefits. Having access to both projected versus actual public benefits is seen as an important standard in order to measure the effectiveness of subsidies programs.
While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to otherwise unscrutinized areas of expenditure. Six states—including Oregon—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 similarly provide detailed information on subsidies spent through the tax code, on economic development subsidies, and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies.”
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Esh. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.” Residents and watchdog groups are taking advantage of the information that is available online. In 2013, users accessed Washington’s checkbook tool over 80,000 times and ran approximately half a million reports.
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.
State spending transparency appears to 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’s transparency website is operated by LEAP and the Office of Financial Management. To visit it, click here: http://fiscal.wa.gov
To read the WashPIRG Foundation report, click here: http://washpirgfoundation.org/reports/waf/following-money
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WashPIRG Foundation works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation. www.washpirgfoundation.org
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