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Des Moines, April 2 – Iowa received a “B” when it comes to government spending transparency, according to “Following the Money 2013: How the States Rank on Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data,” the fourth annual report of its kind by the Iowa PIRG Education Fund
“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 businesses that receive public funds accountable,” said Sonia Ashe, Advocate with the Iowa PIRG Education Fund. “But Iowa still has plenty of room for improvement.”
“You can’t fix problems you can’t find. That’s why transparency is so important in public policy and especially spending through the tax code,” said Peter Fisher, Research Director with Iowa Policy Project. “We are happy to see this new report that brings attention to this issue, properly including business tax credits and other tax expenditures among the categories of state spending that citizens have a right to know about.”
Officials from Iowa and 47 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 Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Oklahoma.
Based on an inventory of the content and ease-of-use of states' transparency websites, “Following the Money 2013” assigns each state a grade of “A” to “F.” The report describes Iowa as an “advancing state” whose checkbook is easy to access and provides detailed information on contracts, non-contract expenditures, economic development tax credits, and grants. However, the website does not provide checkbook-level information on economic development tax credits in a searchable format or downloadable for data analysis.
Iowa was one of the top ten states most improved since last year, rising from an “F” in last year’s report to a “B” in this year’s report. No other state that received a failing grade last year received better than a “C” in this year’s study.
Since last year’s “Following the Money” report, there has been remarkable progress across the country with new states providing online access to government spending information and several states pioneering new tools to further expand citizens’ access to this data.
One of the most striking findings in this year’s report is that all 50 states now provide at least some checkbook-level detail about individual government expenditures. In 48 states—all except California and Vermont—this information is now searchable. Just three years ago, only 32 states provided checkbook-level information on state spending online, and only 29 states provided that information in searchable form. Thirty-nine state transparency websites now include tax expenditure reports, providing information on government expenditures through tax code deductions, exemptions and credits—up from just eight states three years ago.
“Open information about the public purse is crucial for democratic and effective government,” said Ashe. “It is not possible to ensure that government spending decisions are fair and efficient unless information is publicly accessible.”
The states with the most transparent spending stand out partly because they are comprehensive about the kinds of spending they include, such as data on economic development subsidies, expenditures granted through the tax code, and quasi-public agencies. At least six states have launched brand new transparency websites since last year’s report, and most made improvements that are documented in the report. The best state transparency tools are highly searchable, engage citizens, and include detailed information—allowing all the information to be put to good use.
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.
“The state of Iowa should build upon this year’s progress and further improve the breadth and ease-of-access of online government spending information,” said Ashe. “Given our continuing debates over the state budget, Iowans need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, click here: data.iowa.gov
To read the report, click here.
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The Iowa PIRG Education Fund is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts independent research on issues related to the public interest. For more information, visit our website at www.iowapirg.org/edfund
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