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Montana received an “A-” 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 Montana Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. Montana's grade improved since last year, jumping from a B to this year's A-.
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.
“Montanans deserve and rightly expect transparency, which is why one of the first things I did was to put our state’s checkbook online,” said Governor Steve Bullock. “I welcome being held accountable to our citizens for how we spend tax dollars. It makes government more effective and more fiscally responsible.”
Officials from Montana and 46 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 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.
Montana is now one of the leaders in state online budget transparency, thanks to continuing improvements in its provision of information pertaining to economic development subsidies. Every year, Montana spends millions of dollars on tax credits, exemptions, grants and loans intended to bolster the state’s economy by incentivizing job creation, training or capital investment. By including these kinds of programs in the online checkbook, the state saves money, can more effectively plan towards its policy goals, and all the while ensure that the public knows how the state is handling its finances. For the first time this year, Montana allows users to download budget data in bulk for easier analysis.
“Montana has built on its gains from last year by continuing to improve its transparency standards,” said Phineas Baxandall, Senior Policy Analyst with MONTPIRG Education Fund. “With its checkbook wide open to the public, the Big Sky state is ensuring that every citizen knows where their tax dollars are going.”
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. Montana's transparency site was launched and is maintained annually from the existing budget of the Department of Administration.
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.”
Montana’s transparency website is operated by the Montana Department of Administration. To visit it, click here: transparency.mt.gov
To read the full report: http://www.montpirg.org/reports/mtp/following-money-2015
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