State Budgets

State Spending Transparency Portals Vary in Their Approaches and Results

In a way, the very idea of state budget reform presumes some basic level of government transparency. Many simply take for granted the premise that access exists to information like budget documents and state expenditures. Yet the amount of information related to the spending of tax dollars provided by each of the state governments varies wildly.

Sunshine Review maintains a checklist for spending databases produced by state governments. The six criteria are searchability, grants, contracts, line item expenditures, department or agency budgets, and public employee salaries. Details on each state’s results can be found by accessing Sunshine Review’s individual state budget pages.

Only Alabama, Illinois, and Kentucky, received a perfect six. Each transparency site provides all of the necessary information in one centralized location, reducing the time and energy required of citizens to keep an eye on the disbursement of their tax dollars. All state expenditures are listed in a way that includes each of the necessary criteria. As a result, anyone can find their way to Open.Alabama.Gov, view state payments by agency, choose the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and see $6,000 of subsistence and overnight lodging paid in January, 2012 broken down by individual employee. Similarly, one can view expenditures by category on the Illinois Transparency and Accountability Portal, select “Awards and Grants,” and find $950 given by the Illinois Arts Council to the American Choral Directors Association. Kentucky’s Open Door allows anyone with an internet connection to find a Professor at the University of Kentucky earning an $820,000 salary. The amount of information available is quite staggering, and the challenge of making it all accessible is daunting. Yet the ability of each of these transparency portals to provide accurate and comprehensive spending data demonstrates that it can certainly be done.

Ten states came close to perfect by securing at least five of the categories. Best practices can be gleaned from nearly every example. Partial scores went to states like New Hampshire for providing contract expenditure totals but no details on the entities receiving those payments. Without this context, especially in the realm of payments made to outside vendors, numbers are just numbers, and there exists no way to judge the rationale for a particular expenditure.

Ohio, which scored five out of six, provides an example of how states can promote transparency simply by capitalizing on existing resources. To its detriment, Transparency.Ohio.Gov does not provide line item expenditures. It does, however, compile links to government resources that contain other information like employee salaries, grants, and contracts. High initial costs for comprehensive transparency databases can often stand in the way of their creation. While not a fully suitable alternative, simply compiling existing resources can go a long way towards opening the window into state government.

Even some mediocre states in terms of transparency can effectively tackle some categories of the checklist. North Carolina Open Book, for example, scored a 4 out of 6 by leaving out line item expenditures and salaries. Its presentation of grants and contracts, though, is among the most timely and comprehensive. Open Georgia, which lacks contracts, grants, and line item expenditures, provides salary details for all state employees.

Eight states scored between zero and two out of six. Arkansas, Hawaii, Iowa, Wisconsin, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Vermont lack any sort of centralized transparency portal (although recently passed legislation in Arkansas and Pennsylvania mean that new transparency websites are on the way). A handful maintain procurement websites with contract details, but each to varying degrees of success.

Some of the worst offenders are those states that purport to provide meaningful spending information, but fail to live up to any worthwhile standard. Michigan’s Transparency and Accountability site is one example. Expecting detailed reporting of all state expenditures, citizens are instead treated to rather useless pie charts and spreadsheets that simply place spending totals into categories. Payments to outside vendors are listed, but much like the example cited above, lack any context. In lieu of individual employee salaries, it lists only salary and fringe benefit expenditure totals by department. The result is a website filled mostly with fluff, unsuited to the job of holding state government accountable for how it spends taxpayer dollars.

Complete spending transparency in state government still has a long way to go, but the ideal situation of open access to up to date expenditures is entirely achievable. Several states already do this, and many are just a few small steps away. Information technology is more sophisticated than ever before, and crushing debt is directing a watchful eye towards the distribution of tax dollars. As a result, comprehensive spending transparency is strongly in the interest of both state governments and the people.

In Depth: State Budgets

Smart budgeting is vital to a state’s financial health. The ALEC State Budget Reform Toolkit offers more than 20 policy ideas for addressing today’s shortfalls in a forthright manner, without resorting to budget gimmicks or damaging tax increases. One way to stabilize budgets over time is to embrace…

+ State Budgets In Depth