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March 26 – Florida received an “A-” 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 Florida 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 Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for tax and budget policy with the Florida PIRG Education Fund. “Florida is advancing by leaps and bounds, but still has room for improvement.”
Officials from Florida 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 Florida as a “leading state” because the Chief Financial Officer’s user-friendly website allows visitors to monitor the payments made to vendors through contracts, grants, tax credits and other discretionary spending. The website also provides some access to information on municipal expenditures and spending details from public entities outside the state’s usual budget and accounting system.
“We have maintained a commitment to improving Transparency Florida by making it more user friendly along with linking to partner sites for more information about government spending in Florida. All of these efforts are driven by one objective— to make transparency an inherent part of government in Florida,” CFO Jeff Atwater said. “We have worked hard to change the culture in Tallahassee by fostering an open government that promotes greater accountability and holds elected officials to a higher standard. This is the yardstick by which we measure the success of our transparency efforts on behalf of our fellow Floridians.”
No state made a more dramatic improvement in its letter grade this year than Florida. The CFO’s site improved from a “D” in last year’s report to an “A-” this year.
"We're proud to see Florida recognized for our state leaders' efforts to make government spending more transparent and accountable," said Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida. "CFO Atwater and others have made tremendous gains in modernizing government in the sunshine in the Sunshine State."
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 Baxandall. “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.
“Florida is back as a sunshine state, but can’t rest on its laurels. For instance, Florida can improve search capabilities for non-contract expenditure data. Additionally, Florida can improve by making information on economic development tax credits downlo,” said Baxandall. “Given the state’s difficult budget choices, Floridians need to be able to follow the money.”
To access the state’s transparency website, click here.
To read the report, click here.
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Florida PIRG Education Fund works to protect consumers and promote good government. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public, and offer meaningful opportunities for civic participation. www.floridapirgedfund.org
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