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Rhode Island received a “C+” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the sixth annual report of its kind by the RIPIRG Education Fund. Rhode Island's grade improved since last year, jumping from a D+ to this year's C+.
This year’s report recognized more states as leaders than ever before, with all but two states allowing users to search the online checkbook by agency, keyword or vendor, or some combination of the three. Likewise, 44 states now provide checkbook-level data for one or more economic development subsidy programs. Some states have even innovated entirely new features.
“This year, most states have continued to make their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Phineas Baxandall, with the RIPIRG Education Fund. "Rhode Island has improved, but still has a long way to go."
Officials from 47 states provided the researchers with feedback on their initial evaluation of state transparency websites. Unfortunately, Rhode Island was one of only three states that didn’t responded to the researchers with any feedback.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, the “Following the Money 2015” report assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The leading states with the most comprehensive transparency websites are Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oregon, Louisiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Montana, New York, Texas, and South Dakota.
Rhode Island is a “middling” state with regards to budget transparency this year, but is also one of the most improved states, thanks to several key steps the Office of Digital Excellence has taken to incorporate new features. Last year, Rhode Island did not provide checkbook-level details about economic development program spending. This year, however, such spending is available for users on the site. The next step for Rhode Island would be to include projected and actual public benefits for these subsidies. For other states, such disclosures have allowed people to better analyze how effective these programs are toward achieving key policy goals.
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 preventing misspending and pay-to-play contracts.
"Open and accessible state budgets are important so that the public can see where its tax dollars are being spent, and hold their state government accountable for its decisions, said Sunlight Foundation National Policy Manager Emily Shaw. "It's encouraging to see more states prioritizing open data policies and taking the steps necessary to make their data truly accessible."
State spending transparency appears to be a 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 of Ohio topped the rankings, climbing from a “D-” in 2014 to an “A+” this year for its improvements to the Online Checkbook transparency portal. Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel said, “I’m proud to have built OhioCheckbook.com and taken Ohio’s transparency ranking from 46th to 1st in the nation. The work U.S. PIRG’s doing on open government is helping set off a national race for transparency. My office was motivated to participate in this race and we will continue to work with U.S. PIRG and others to empower taxpayers to hold public officials accountable.”
Rhode Island’s transparency website is operated by the Rhode Island Office of Digital Excellence. To visit it, click here: transparency.ri.gov
To read the full report: http://www.ripirg.org/reports/rip/following-money-2015
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