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Illinois 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 Illinois Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. Illinois' 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.
“This year, most states have made their budgets more open to the public, allowing users to better scrutinize how the government uses their tax dollars,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. "Illinois’ transparency efforts are a national success story."
Officials from Illinois 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.
Illinois is a leader in online budget transparency. By adding information that details which state expenditures are necessarily “excluded” from the checkbook due to legal or logistical reasons, Illinois made its site more comprehensive. The state also includes data about the projected and actual public benefits of some of its largest economic development programs, and details such spending on a checkbook-level. Illinois could improve even further by making such data sets downloadable.
“Illinois scored well, but we can do better. In the Comptroller’s Office, we are redoubling our efforts to shine the light on government spending by bolstering our financial transparency websites – The Ledger and The Warehouse – with even more information on state and local government spending,” said Illinois State Comptroller Leslie Munger. “I want to thank the Public Interest Research Group and the Frontier Group for sponsoring this annual survey and their overall commitment to transparency initiatives. I strongly believe that if you can Follow the Money, you can motivate government officials to spend it more efficiently and responsibly.”
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. Illinois officials reported that their transparency portal cost approximately $100,000 to launch and costs $10,000 in annual operating costs.
"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."
"Because people are at best fallible, and at worst seduced by power, reports like this are essential to ensure government transparency to support government accountability," said Maryam Judar, Executive Director of the Citizen’s Advocacy Center.
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.
"A public outraged over corruption has demanded more transparency. As a result, the state has put more information online, but it has more work to do. We have nearly 7,000 local governments in our state, more than any other. It's hard to find information for a lot of them. A uniform checkbook database would be a big help,” said David Giuliani, Government Reform Analyst with the Illinois Policy Institute.
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.”
Illinois’s transparency website is operated by the Illinois Office of the Comptroller, Department of Central Management Services. To visit it, click here: accountability.illinois.gov
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