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Bruce Speight: Kudos due as state leaps on transparency index
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Bruce Speight: Kudos due as state leaps on transparency index

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Wisconsin received an A- 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 WISPIRG Foundation.

The state of Wisconsin has made great progress in becoming more transparent about where public money goes, providing citizens with the information they need to hold elected officials and recipients of public subsidies accountable.

Officials from Wisconsin and 45 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 2014” report assigns each state a grade of A to F. The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Indiana, Florida, Oregon, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Vermont, and Wisconsin.

With the launch of OpenBook Wisconsin in late 2013, Wisconsin saw the largest improvement of any state in the country with an increase of 43 points. After being considered a "failing state" and receiving only 47 of 100 points one year ago, Wisconsin received 90 out of 100 points this year, taking a big step forward in 2013. We are now considered a "leading state" when it comes to government spending transparency.

OpenBook Wisconsin brings a far greater level of transparency to government spending by posting the state’s checkbook. Visitors can browse the payments made to vendors based on the vendor’s name, purchasing agency or type of expenditure. The checkbook is updated every two weeks, and even though the site is new, the Department of Administration has posted expenditure information back to fiscal year 2008.

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 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 on “off-budget” quasi-public agencies.

Over the next year, Wisconsin should continue to advance online transparency to empower and engage citizen involvement. Leading states can’t rest on their laurels. Grading standards rise each year, so states need to improve transparency each year to be a leader. For example, we encourage state leaders in Wisconsin to provide information on the funds recouped from economic development subsidy recipients that fail to deliver on the agreed-upon public benefits.

Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government. It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.

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.

It is good to see that state spending transparency appears to be a nonpartisan 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.

Transparency is important for good government and sound budgets. WISPIRG encourages Wisconsin to achieve the greatest degree of transparency possible.

Bruce Speight is director of the WISPIRG Foundation.

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