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Photo: Emily Metcalf
money
Photo: Emily Metcalf

Report from U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund – Hawaii received a C 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 U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. That grade is a huge improvement.

“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 Phineas Baxandall, Senior Analyst with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. “We’re hoping that Hawaii will be a leader next year.”

Officials from Hawaii and 44 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.

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.” Described in the report as a “Middling state,” Hawaii has comprehensive and easy-to-access checkbook-level spending information but limited information on off-budget agencies and very little information about economic development subsidies.

After receiving an F in last year’s report, Hawaii showed significant improvement this year with a score of 71. Of the 50 states, Hawaii’s was the 2nd most improved score. Grading standards become more stringent each year, so states need to improve transparency each year just to avoid slipping in the rankings.

While many states continue to improve, the states that most distinguished themselves as leaders in spending transparency are those that provide access to types of expenditures that otherwise receive little public scrutiny. For instance, six states 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 and “off-budget” quasi-public agencies.

“Rising public expectations about government transparency are clearly making progress,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks state and local subsidies. “US PIRG’s findings about overall state spending transparency are consistent with our own specific findings about economic development subsidies: there is more data and its quality is improving. Now our collective challenge is to use the data to win more accountability and equity.”

“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.”

Hawaii is one of eight states that launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report. In January 2014, Hawaii’s Department of Budget and Finance launched a new transparency website that creates a one-stop source for Hawaii’s expenditure and financial information, and even provides the data in charts, graphs, reports and tables.

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 is a non-partisan issue. The report compared transparency scores with a variety of measures of which party rules the state legislative, or sits in the Governor’s office, or how public opinion tilts in the states. Neither Republican nor Democratic states tended to have higher levels of spending disclosure.

The state’s transparency website, is operated by Hawaii State Procurement Office, Department of Accounting and General Services. To visit the site, click here: http://transparency.hawaii.gov .

To read the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report, click here: http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/following-money-2014

Public Interest Research Group Education Fund works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation. www.uspirgedfund.org

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