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March 26 – Texas received an “A” and bests all other states when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the TexPIRG Education Fund.
“I have led the transparency initiative in Texas since taking office in 2007 because taxpayers expect and deserve to know how government is spending their money,” said Texas Comptroller Susan Combs. “We are always looking for ways to shine a light on spending in Texas. Currently, we are working with state lawmakers to expand transparency for local government debt and spending, which would allow residents to fully understand how much they’re on the hook for.”
“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 businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the TexPIRG Education Fund. “But Texas still has room for improvement.”
Officials from Texas and 47 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 Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The report describes Texas as a “leading state” in online spending transparency. The Comptroller’s user-friendly website allows visitors to monitor the payments made to vendors through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending. The website also provides some access to information on municipal expenditures and spending at off-budget agencies. One way in which Texas’ website could improve is by providing information on economic development tax credits in a fully searchable format.
Texas received topped all other states, receiving 95 points out of a 100 and the only straight “A” among all 50 states. This is the third consecutive year that Texas’ transparency website has earned an “A” level grade but the only time that it has stood alone as best ranked in the nation.
Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, 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.
One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states—all except California and Vermont—this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information on state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits—up from just eight states three years ago.
“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.”
The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens, and include detailed information—allowing all the information to be put to good use.
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.
“The Comptroller should be commended for her ongoing efforts to improve transparency in Texas. Transparency standards improve each year and she will need to keep improving. For instance, off-budget agencies like toll roads and yearly diversions between state funds should become more fully transparent,” said Baxandall. “Given the state’s difficult budget choices, Texans need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, click here.
To read the report, click here.
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